Media and Communication Ph.D. Dissertations


Digital Whiteness Imperialism: Redefining Caucasian Identity Post-Boston Bombing

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Media and Communication

First Advisor

Lara Lengel (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Lisa Hanasono (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Saif Shahin (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Monica Longmore (Committee Member)


Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial was one of the most important news stories of 2015 and inspired a massive social media response. Many people utilized social media to share messages of hope, but others created hateful messages and threats. Furthermore, social media has become an important source of news gathering and social support. The attack, the social media response, and the nature of social media combine to raise questions about the ways social media users present themselves, especially in times of stress/conflict. It is also important to consider who creates these networks, why individuals feel more comfortable to behave differently in them, and why some individuals have restricted access to these spaces.

This dissertation draws from critical intercultural communication, computer-mediated communication (CMC), history, sociology, and architecture to introduce Digital Whiteness Imperialism. The study identifies the critical intercultural communication concepts of Whiteness, Identity, and Privilege and explicates the ways these concepts have translated to digital spaces such as Twitter. The dissertation also draws comparisons to physical space and proxemics. I examine social media as space at micro, meso, and macro levels. With this information I focus on how Twitters users utilize that program to advance or challenge Digital Whiteness Imperialism.

The study includes an argument for using critical qualitative methods for studying Digital Whiteness Imperialism specifically as it relates to the Twitter response to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial. I use tweets to examine the factors that lead individuals to create and publish negative social media messages as well as examining the impression management strategies they use when posting these messages or responding when their message is challenged. In sum, 26,710 tweets with over 581 million impressions were collected. This dataset was later reduced to English language tweets during the most active period of the #BostonBombing trend. More than 13,000 tweets were analyzed and several themes emerged that reflect larger themes of death and punishment toward individuals that are Otherized by the dominant White male culture, a unique set of conspiracy beliefs from users that are Otherized for their ideas, subversive content that hijacks the hashtag, conflicting opinions of the #BostonStrong meaning, and more.