The Cosby case: analysing the data

In 2015, two years before Cosby’s first trial, a fellow actor named Joseph C. Phillips, who had appeared with him in the Cosby Show in 1984, wrote a lengthy blog entry in which he discussed his feelings about the controversy surrounding the star.4 We have selected this piece, and the following readers’ comments section, as representing the voluminous discourse on Social Media generated by the affair.

We have suggested above that there arc two contexts nowadays in which the guilt or innocence of a subject are decided, the official legal context and an unofficial counterpart, the tribunal of public opinion. The latter may have always existed, but in the age of Social Media it has unprecedented access to information about ongoing trials, as well as a forum by means of which opinions can be expressed, argumentation advanced, and persuasion achieved (Zachara 2014: 224). In our text, the discursive frame for discussion about Cosby is that of innocent/guilty, and is established by an emphatic heading containing the text: OF COURSE BILL COSBY IS GUILTY!

By contrast with discourse in a legal context, contributors to this debate are not bound by any legal requirements: bloggers simply state their views and engage with each other in informal language. Beneath the photo are buttons by means of which the blog can be shared across other forms of Social Media (Facebook, Twitter), as well as an indicator showing the number of times this has been done. Through Social Media, therefore, this mass of spontaneously expressed opinion will circulate and be read, reacted to, possibly re-tweeted or shared on Facebook, and thus potentially reach an incalculable audience worldwide (Blommaert and Varis 2015: 60).

In the terms of Kress and Van Lceuwen’s (1996: 57) notion of ‘vertical elongation’, the distribution of text and image is significant: ‘What is most important or otherwise dominant goes on top, what is less important or dominant is relegated to the bottom’. The first semiotic item processed by the reader here, therefore, is the text, with its statement of Cosby’s guilt. It is positioned immediately above a colour face-shot of Cosby in his prime; smiling, hand touching the peak of his cap in a welcoming gesture. By presenting such an image - and not one, for example, of the elderly actor in a more vulnerable,

Trial by (social) media 25 human pose - the writer presents him in a positive light. We are looking at Bill Cosby, the star of the Cosby Show, symbol of racial integration, ‘America’s dad’.5 In effect, part of the writer’s intention in this piece is to protect Cosby’s image from further damage, so that he and, by extension, Americans generally, can continue to cherish memories of their fallen icon.

The text continues, with positive evaluations (Hunston and Thompson 2000) of Cosby during the time the two worked together:

I was blessed in that regard, and even more blessed that I found my idol as clever, kind, and brilliant as I had imagined

The writer then tells the story of his own coming to terms with Cosby’s guilt:

this Bill was involved in illegal drugs and illicit sex, fornication, and perhaps more.

This time, the evaluation is not found in explicitly evaluative adjectives, but rather construed via what Martin and White (2005) call expressions of invoked attitude; in other words, because the character is involved in activities that society generally deplores, there is an implicit negative judgement here. Via the use of the passive voice, the severity of his actions is further diminished, at least to a degree: it is, arguably, less culpable to ‘be involved in something’ than ‘to do’ something (Trew 1979). Phillips concludes his text with a direct appeal to Bill Cosby, not to confess, to make up for the harm he has caused, etc., but rather, to retire from the scene, so that something of his legacy may survive the scandal:

Bill, you have a family that loves you, a wife who is devoted to you; you have more money than you can spend. Please, go live a quiet country life. Allow those of us who truly love you to preserve just a bit of our enchantment.

Applying Clark’s model to extrapolating the writer’s meaning here, in terms of Cosby’s guilt or innocence, we can paraphrase it as follows: Cosby is guilty (the writer does not, for instance, advise him to fight to clear his name in the courts), therefore he should retire from the scene. He should not face legal punishment, because the actor’s legacy is more important than the ends of justice. Clark speaks of ‘tacit agreement’ between speaker and hearer, and an implicit conclusion such as this will be accepted only by readers that share the writer’s scale of ethical/normative values. As we shall see (Table 2.2 below), this is not universally the case:

If we apply Grice’s maxim of Relation to Faraone’s first sentence (1-4), we have an implicit meaning, as follows: sexual abuse is a common feature of the acting industry/Hollywood, and Bill Cosby’s actions must be seen as exemplifying this (= Cosby is guilty). There is also a covert reference to slipping victims Quaaludes in drink, as this is one of the ‘forms’ that such abuse may take (4). Thus, the ‘truth’ that Faraone wishes to hear Joseph demand from Cosby

26 D. Ponton and M. Сапера Table 2.2 Blog contributions




  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9

Elizabeth Faraone-Art Students League

I really think the majority of people in Hollywood (especially child actors) have been forced to accept the abuse of the acting industry, in all of the forms that it takes. When Joseph says he wants to hear the truth from Bill, rather than that he wants him to go into hiding so he can continue to live in his fantasy world, I will know Joseph is on the road to better mental health.

  • 3-4 BC is representative of this behaviour
  • 4 these may include drugging victims
  • 5-6 BC is guilty
  • 8-9 J’s opinions are “crazy”
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13

Jody Daniel-

Disc Jockey (DJ) at The Churchward Pub right? I expected what he was going to say was, bill, its not to late to speak the truth and own your ish! But thats not what he said.

12-13 BC is guilty; he has "an issue”

  • 14
  • 15
  • 16
  • 17
  • 18

Lori Scalon

Jody Daniel -

I KNOW! I can't believe this author. “Bill go live a quiet life in the country” wth?!How about... “Bill, go finish up yourdegencrate existence in a 10x10 cell getting raped against your will!!!"

14-15 BC is guilty 17-18 an appropriate punishment

(5-6), relates to his involvement in such actions, i.e. that he was involved in repeated abuse of women wishing to enter the acting industry. In (6), ‘he’ refers to Phillips, who wants to continue living in a ‘fantasy world’, i.e. one in which he can maintain intact the image of Cosby as an icon. Underlying Faraonc’s contribution is an assumption that Cosby is guilty. This is her bed-rock position, even though, it must be remembered, the actor had so far not stood trial - there is, therefore, no legal basis for her assumption, which must be based on hearsay and rumours in the media (unless she herself has first-hand experience in the matter, which is improbable). Jody Daniel’s contribution builds on the first,

Trial by (social) media 27 aligning herself with Faraone via her opening word, ‘right’ (11), and implying that Bill should, effectively, speak the ‘truth’ (12). The exact contours of‘the truth’ here are, as in the first contribution, imprecise, though here it is connected with Cosby having ‘an issue’, which he should acknowledge. It is therefore clear that Daniel, too, believes that Cosby is guilty. The final contributor picks up some of these inferences. By capitalisation (I KNOW!) she signals strong alignment with the previous two contributions, and makes explicit the aspect of the discourse that she has most trouble with: ‘Bill, go live a quiet life in the country’’ (14-15). The acronym wth?! (what the hell?) signals her disagreement with the proposition. That Cosby is guilty', for her, is implied by the fact that she proposes a more appropriate punishment for him, in which, parenthetically, there is an explicit representation of the crime he is alleged to have committed (18), as well as by the explicit negative evaluative adjective ‘degenerate’ (17).

Though Cosby’s identity can be said, in the terms of Bucholtz and Hall, to ‘emerge’ from these interactions, its precise contours do not; rather, like the meanings associated with elements of the linguistic code, they’ also need to be deduced, or inferred. What is clear is that for all three of the commentators and, to a lesser degree, for Phillips himself, Cosby’s identity is, to some extent, that of a sexual predator who has ab/used his position as an American icon to procure gratification.

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