Pratiksha Thangam Menon, GSRA for the Digital Accessible Futures Lab, loves GoodReads. She holds two MAs—one in Communications from the University of Illinois-Chicago and one in Journalism from Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communication in India. [Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.]

Tell me a little about your scholarly background and research:

I used to be an entertainment journalist in India. This background influences a lot of my work tied to popular culture and the news industry. My MA work focused on contemporary representations of leading women in Bollywood, especially in roles marketed as feminist. Ultimately, I argued that these so-called feminist representations were refracted through a patriarchal lens.

My dissertation research here at U-M focuses on the mainstreaming of supremacist ideas through the circulation of online humor. I primarily focus on Hindutva supremacy, but I’m also looking at the ways in which supremacist ideas travel across transnational media networks.

Can you tell me about what attracted you to DSI and DISCO at U-M and the work you do with them?
I am currently a research assistant at the Digital Accessible Futures Lab where I work with Dr. Remi Yergeau and Dr. David Adelman. We are currently analyzing student interviews taken in Digital Studies classes to make clearer connections between race, disability, and gender in the DS curriculum. The next stage of this project is thinking about how other departments outside of the DSI, like the College of Engineering and Computer Science departments, can also begin incorporating these questions into their curriculum.

When I started working on my dissertation in 2016, the whiteness that structures the internet was just starting to be put into question. That my work has found a home at the DISCO network is so affirming to the fact that this work—looking at the everyday ways in which hate and supremacist culture spreads—is important. It is such a privilege to be a part of DISCO because the founding scholars of the network have been critical in my own understanding of how digital inequity works. I feel honored to have these scholars read my work and give me feedback.

What inspired you to make the jump from journalism to academia?

When I was a journalist, I was bothered by the idea that objectivity doesn’t mean that every side gets an equal voice. In journalism, especially with television journalism in India, I realized that there wasn't a place to take a principled stand. But in academia, there was a lot more space and more resources to think critically because in journalism you’re always focused on, “what’s the next story?” So when I made the jump, I wanted to look holistically at both media industry culture, popular culture, and how they work in tandem to influence how people understand the media around them.

A lot of online humor that promotes supremacist ideas are memes and YouTube videos. People use these memes as a substitute for actual context-based news, and having a journalistic understanding of news definitely helps me with figuring out what is fake, what is not, and how to add context. In the case of Hindu fundamentalism, a lot of the supremacist content rewrites Indian history through humor to essentially bolster ideas naturalizing Hindutva supremacy..

Supremacist cultures don’t live exclusively online, and my training as a journalist helps me map the circulation of these ideologies throughout the entire media ecosystem. But as a media studies scholar, what has been very interesting about this project is finding transnational connections, even in the most unlikely spaces of comedy. ,. These connections are formed globally. Even if these platforms have originated in North America, these harmful ideas are not restricted to America and circulate around the world.

How has your experience working in the media industry as a journalist in India influenced your academic work?

I learned the contingencies under which news functions, like what the restraints are in terms of ownership, the amount of context that is necessary to publish a news story, and how all of these news channels fighting for eyeballs shapes their editorial perspective.
This background helps me contextualize the information ecosystem. I'm not saying that if I was not a journalist, I wouldn't have been able to find this out, but it's a lot more organic, having been in the system and already understanding how these things work.

One idea that animated my research since 2016 is that popular culture trends are no longer something that is restricted to the geographical boundaries of a nation. Particularly, in the way interactions take place on social media and the connections between white supremacy and Hindutva supremacy. The internet made these connections possible.

In one of my chapters, I analyze the demolition of the Babri Masjid, a mosque in the city of Ayodhya in 1992, led by Hindu vigilante mobs. Although the destruction occurred back in 1992, the Indian Supreme Court verdicts were passed in 2019-2020 and there is a strong difference in the way the media covered the 1992 destruction compared to the coverage of the verdicts from four years ago.

When the mosque was demolished, riots broke out all over the country. The media took a stance placing shame on India and the idea of a secular nation. The media asked, “how can we Hindus, as a majority community, do something that heinous to our Muslim brothers?” But in 2020, the India Supreme Court basically acquitted all of those who were accused of violence in 1992. They gave over the land of the mosque to the Hindu Board that was petitioning for the building of a temple on that land of the mosque.

The verdict was framed as a victory, as a matter of pride rather than as a matter of shame, unlike its coverage in the e 1990s. This shift is where the humor comes in. Throughout the coverage of the Supreme Court verdicts memes that were shared online surrounding the Babri Masjid were very humorous. These memes showed the demolition not as the act of violence that it was, but as an act of righteous victory, as infantilizing the Muslim population, trivializing the atrocities as a matter of comic relief.

What is a typical day online for you?

A typical day online for me is pretty boring; I’m in a lot of Zoom meetings and on my email. One cool thing is that for a chapter I’m writing, I’m going through newspaper archives. I love that I can do it online because I'm old enough to remember the time when I actually had to go to the library and just search through reams of newspapers.

I have a very strict personal social media policy for myself just because so much of my research is in these very toxic spaces on social media networks. My phone limits me to 15 minutes of social media, and I usually look at Instagram. But I also love GoodReads! Sometimes I’ll be looking at that at 2AM. My habits are all nerdy, but I also choose spaces where I’m not exposed to the hate speech I research.