Using positionality to assess humor and power on social media

Humor is a critical tool people use to both challenge power structures and reinforce them. Online, we see people mobilize humor in the wielding of memes to express hate, the political critique of parody, and everything in between. As a result, social media companies must constantly make decisions about the limits of jokes. But humor is notoriously difficult to assess. All too often, attempts to consider intent have left harms unaddressed. At the same time, unilaterally ruling against humor denies its social benefits. Nor is inaction out of fear of contextual complexities a viable strategy: indecisiveness is a vulnerability that bad actors exploit (e.g., Grossman et al. 2019; Mueller 2019). How, then, can social media companies develop meaningful assessment protocols that recognize both humor and power?

We propose that considering positionality can help. The concept of positionality emerges from standpoint theory (Haraway 2004; Harding 1993; Hill Collins 1990) and scholarship on voice and expression (Bakhtin 1981). Positionality recognizes that the meaning of an interaction is not separate from the positions of power that people occupy. Comics as well as scholars of humor studies draw on this same concept when they distinguish “punching up” as socially positive and “punching down” as socially corrosive. Punching up involves those with less power using humor to challenge those with more power (think: critiquing a dictatorship through jokes). While punching down involves those with more power reinforcing this power structure through demeaning those with less power (think: sharing sexist or racist memes).

Project team


Project funding

  • Facebook’s Content Governance funding (2020 – 2021)

illuminated laugh sign