Media manipulation and disinformation / Manipulation médiatique et désinformation

Credits: @violastefanello
Credits: @violastefanello

Becca Lewis, author and reserarcher at Data & Society.

With all the advantages and opportunities which automation and metrics present, the increasing role of technology in the media also throws up a number of new challenges. The spread of fake news and manipulative information have been taking advantage of people vulnerable to online misinformation. These information are particularly dangerous in spreading far-end extremism, conspiracy theory, sexism, racism, and xenophobia. Becca Lewis, researcher at Data&Society, shares some anectodes from a mainly American context covering topics from sexism to racism and xenophobia in the digital age.

She starts with a short profile of Mike Serkovitch, a twitter influencer with far-right ideology, who broadcasted on live platform Periscope. Since he dislikes the Black Lives Matter movement, he spread the hashtag #blmkidnapping – which spreaded over 400,000 tweets in 48 hours – linking a kidnapping in New York to the advocacy group. Every mainstream outlet had to report that  Black Lives Matter didn’t have anything to do with the incident, debunking the hashtag. If this sounds like a happy ending, think again: to those interested in spreading fake news for their own agenda, any kind of news coverage is nothing but good news.

But why are the media vulnerable in face of such provocation? 

Trust in media is now at an all time low – less than a thirdof poll respondents in the US  stated that they completely believed it – and the public opinion is divided even more strongly along partisan lines. Some have lost enough trust in the media that they just opt out and start consuming other alternative information sources. A decline in local news as they try to switch to digital has meant that, without enough resources, local media outlets adapting to ad-based news models started emphasizing news based on the readers’ volatile clicks rather than loyalising readers. Moreover, newspapers are increasingly laying off journalists and fact checkers, depending more and more on automation and metrics.

And who is most interested in manipulating information and infiltrating the media?

The Alt-right – term developed by far-right wing to try and rebrand themselves – is taking advantage of the struggle of mainstream media. White nationalists such as Richard Spenser, who developed the term alt-right, have a goal: to normalise white nationalism in the media, making things sound less racist than they really are

Then there’s the so-called “manosphere”, a group of forums that group man who feel like the male is the most oppressed group in society, and targets feminists in particular. Trolls and Chan culture also have a role in this. This subculture, animated by people who self identify as trolls, share the goal goal of illiciting a reaction and  they are more than willing to use racist and provocative language to achieve this. The problem that rises is that it’s really hard to know the difference between ironic racism and real racism in this day and age.

Conspiracy theorists certainly benefit from this infiltration and maniuplation campaign. “Around any major event now, the Las Vegas shooting in the US, you’ll have conspiracy theorists cropping up”, Ms Lewis recalls. The list goes on.

These disparate groups have learned how to work together across ideological lines. It is agreed that ‘they all hate the media’, and are willing toovercome their differences… “it would be a heartwarming story if it weren’t the most horrifying thing ever”, states Ms Lewis.

Indeed, these actors strategically use ambiguity to redirect attention on racist commentary and have started to emply automation tools in their favour: they clearly know the strategic use of bots and also use memes, that attract people with humour and spread quickly. Creating widely-popular memes – such as, for example, the meme about Clinton being deathly ill – feeds a narrative that goes to serve these actors’ agenda. They’re using the new media to create a cycle of radicalisation , since the more the media is tricked, the more people opt out of mainstream coverage and ‘opt into their folds’.

And if the media isn’t going to find a solution to this vicious circle, we’re at risk of getting past the point where fact checking just won’t work at all any more.


Ya Chun Wang and Olivia Konotey-Ahulu

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