[A NULab and Shorenstein Center Event on #fakenews]

More than fifty people packed available chairs, corners, and floor space of a room in the Curry Student Center at Northeastern University to hear Alice Marwick present her talk, Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online. The talk stemmed from a Data and Society report published in May 2017, completed by herself and Rebecca Lewis [1]. Their study on media and disinformation is only one facet of this larger organization, which studies how “The same innovative technologies and sociotechnical practices that are reconfiguring society . . . can be abused to invade people’s privacy, provide new tools of discrimination, and harm individuals and communities” (https://datasociety.net/about/).

Marwick came to the Data and Society organization as a qualitative social scientist who investigates the role of social media in society. Within this broad scope, her October 3 presentation focused on the ways that hyper-partisan, far right/alt-right groups manipulate mainstream media with online misinformation and disinformation. Although misinformation is unintentionally accurate and disinformation is intentionally inaccurate, the alt-right does not particularly care about accuracy or intentionality—as long as their misogynistic, anti-semitic, or racist messages continue to spread. Marwick’s talk spanned many facets, including an overview of how media manipulation works and the motivation behind it.

How Media Manipulation Works

Alice Marwick explains that misinformation originates in alt-right online spaces, like 4chan and 8chan, where users feel comfortable posting anything, since posts are both anonymous and temporary. The community then chooses particular messages or ideas to bring to mainstream social media spaces like facebook or twitter where they flood hashtags and trending-content algorithms. These actions not only manipulate supposedly “unbiased” algorithms, but also they generate enough noise that the stories are inevitably picked up by the hyper-partisan far-right press. Although sites like Breitbart aren’t completely devoted to fake news, even semi-factual stories are so deeply ideologically-slanted that they cannot and should not be considered objective journalism. The biggest hyper-partisan “news” stories then get picked up and shared  by mainstream right wing media, like Fox, without being fact-checked first. Based on the instantaneous feedback loop, the information continues to gain popularity until other news media outlets feel pressure to comment on the story. Marwick again commented that, for anonymous online trolls, it doesn’t matter whether mainstream media criticizes or endorses the information: if they are talking about it at all, it’s a win. Furthermore, when reported stories turn out to be false, it decreases trust in the mainstream media, which is one of the motivations behind the actions of the alt-right community.

The Motivation Behind the Spread of Misinformation

Marwick highlighted three motivational facets that encourage alt-right users to originate and spread misinformation: an obsession with trolling and pranks, an addiction to attention and fame, and a desire to manipulate people’s affective responses. The alt-right comprises mostly white men who feel that their identity and livelihood is under attack; therefore, although these individuals may hold variations of extreme beliefs, they are willing to put aside differences and work toward a common outcome. Beyond the general motivations listed above, the alt-right sees the mainstream media as concealing truths from the public, and they hope to undermine that by converting as many people as possible to their own conspiracy theories. Marwick outlined many tactics and strategies used by alt-right groups to perpetuate the spread of misinformation, most of which rely on what Marwick calls an “army of coordinated accounts and bots.” This coordinated effort is known as “red-pilling,” which plays off the 1999 movie, The Matrix, in which swallowing a red pill allows characters to be freed from the control of a bot-created simulated reality.

Implications for Future Research

The perpetuation of misinformation and disinformation is undermining the position of government watchdog that the mainstream media has historically taken. To counteract this, Alice Marwick concluded her presentation with a call to action for researchers to begin thinking critically for solutions to counteract alt-right propaganda. First, she asked, what role do state actors have in feeding this propaganda? Then, how can we prevent red-pilling of vulnerable young men? Lastly, can smarter algorithms be created to detect and prevent the spread of propaganda? Let us know your thoughts!

Want more? You can view the full Data and Society report by clicking on this link.

For further questions or for more information, please contact Lara Rose at roberts[dot]L[at]husky[dot]neu[dot]edu