In Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online, Marwick and Lewis (2017) of the Data & Society Research Institute described the agents of media manipulation, their modus operandi, motivators, and how they’ve taken advantage of the vulnerability of online media. The researchers described the manipulators as right-wing extremists (RWE), also known as alt-right, who run the gamut from sexists (including male sexual conquest communities) to white nationalists to anti-immigration activists and even those who rebuke RWE identification but whose actions confer such classification. These manipulators rally behind a shared belief on online forums, blogs, podcasts, and social media through pranks or ruinous trolling anonymity, usurping participatory culture methods (networking, humor, mentorship) for harassment, and competitive cyber brigades that earn status by escalating bullying such as the sharing of a target’s private information. The researchers proposed that the use of the more digestible term of alt-right to convey the collective agenda of misogynists, racists, and fascists propelled their causes into the mainstream discourse through various media streams. Therefore, I’ll use the term RWE instead.
MEDIA ECOSYSTEM MALEABILITY
The Internet provides a shared space for good and evil. Subcultures such as white nationalists can converge with other anti-establishment doers on an international scale thanks to the connected world we live in. Marwick and Lewis reported on how RWE groups have taken advantage of certain media tactics to gain viewers’ attention such as novelty and sensationalism, as well as their interactions with the public via social media, to manipulate it for their agenda. For instance, YouTube provides any individual with a portal and potential revenue to contribute to the media ecosystem. The researchers shared the example of the use of YouTube by conspiracy theorists, which can be used as fodder for extremist networks as conspiracies generally focus on loss of control of important ideals, health, and safety. The more outrageous conspiracies get picked up by the media for their viewers, and in doing so, are part to blame for their proliferation. In the case study provided with this article, The White Student Union, an influencer successfully sought moral outrage as a publicity stunt. Why isn’t the media more astute about this? “The mainstream media’s predilection for sensationalism, need for constant novelty, and emphasis on profits over civic responsibility made them vulnerable to strategic manipulation (p. 47) (Marwick & Lewis, 2017).”
ONLINE ATTENTION HACKING
Marwick and Lewis shared how certain RWE influencers gained prominence based on their technological skills and manipulative tactics. One tactic they’re using is to package their hate in a way that appeals to millennials. They use attention hacking to increase their status such as hate speech, which is later recanted as trickster trolling all the while gaining the media’s attention for further propagation. Then there are the RWE so-called news outlets and blogs that promote a hyper-partisan agenda and falsehoods. These were successful in attention hacking the nation running up to the 2016 Presidential election at a scale that out-paced that of the regular news outlets on Facebook (Buzz Feed News, 2016). Are they unstoppable? The researchers indicated that the only formidable enemy of alt-right media are the opposing factions within its fractured, yet shared hate, assemblage. Unfortunately, mainstream media’s reporting on political figures who engage in conspiracy theories or call them out, albeit noteworthy as to their mindset, raises it to the level of other important news worthy of debate. Berger and Luckmann (1966) referred to this as ‘reality maintenance’ through dialogue, reality-confirmation through interactions, ongoingly modified, and legitimized through certain conversations. The media needs to stop the amplification of RWE messages; otherwise, as Marwick and Lewis stated, it could gravely darken our democracy.
ONLINE MANIPULATORS SHARED MODUS OPERANDI
Marwick and Lewis reported the following shared tactics various RWE groups use for online exploits:
- Ambiguity of persona or ideology,
- Baiting a single or community target’s emotions,
- Bots for amplification of propaganda that appears legitimately from a real person,
- “…Embeddedness in Internet culture… (p. 28),”
- Exploitation of young male rebelliousness,
- Hate speech and offensive language (under the guise of First Amendment protections),
- Irony to cloak ideology and/or skewer intended targets,
- Memes for stickiness of propaganda,
- Mentorship in argumentation, marketing strategies, and subversive literature in their communities of interest,
- Networked and agile groups,
- “…Permanent warfare… (p.12)” call to action,
- Pseudo scholarship to deceive readers,
- “…Quasi moral arguments… (p. 7)”
- Shocking images for filtering network membership,
- “Trading stories up the chain… (p. 38)” from low-level news outlets to mainstream, and
- Trolling others with asocial behavior.
This is a frightful attempt at the social reconstruction of our reality, as the verbal and nonverbal language we use objectifies and rules the order (Berger and Luckmann, 1966).
According to Marwick and Lewis, media manipulators are motivated by pushing their ideological agendas, the joy of sowing chaos in the lives of targets, financial gain, and/or status. The RWE’s shared use of online venues to build a counter-narrative and to radicalize recruits is not going away any time soon. This was best explained in their article as, with the Internet, the usual media gatekeepers have been removed. There are some who claim their impetus was financial and not politically motivated such as the teenagers in Veles, Macedonia who profited around 16K dollars per month via Google’s AdSense from Facebook post engagements with their 100 fake news websites (Subramanian, 2017). “What Veles produced, though, was something more extreme still: an enterprise of cool, pure amorality, free not only of ideology but of any concern or feeling about the substance of the election (Subramanian, 2017).” Fortunately for those of us living in the US, Google eventually suspended the ads from these and other fake news sites. However, as reported in Dead Reckoning, new provocateurs will eventually figure out how to circumvent Google’s AdSense and other online companies’ gateways as soon as they develop new ones. This is because, as aforementioned, the RWE influencers are tech savvy.
PUBLIC MISTRUST OF MAINSTREAM MEDIA
Marwick and Lewis acknowledged a long history of mistrust with mainstream media. However, the current distrust appears worse than ever. For example, youth reported to have little faith in mainstream media (Madden, Lenhart & Fontaine, 2017). Republicans’ trust in the mainstream media was the lowest ever recorded by the Gallop Poll (Swift, 2016). Why has it worsened? They pinpointed The New York Times lack of evidence for various news articles on the Iraq War’s nuclear arsenal, as an example of long-lasting readership dismay. The researchers reported on how lack of trust in the mainstream media has pushed viewers to watch alternative networks instead. Moreover, the right-wing extremists’ manipulation of the media demonstrates the media’s weakness, which in turn sows mistrust. Marwick and Lewis acknowledged that the RWE subculture has been around the Internet for decades and will continue to thrive off the mainstream media’s need for novelty and sensationalism if allowed. I, for one, appreciate what Data & Society is doing to shed light on the spread of fake news and hatemongers’ agendas on the Internet.
If you’re a college instructor of communications or teach digital literacy as a librarian, see the corresponding syllabus for this article. It provides discussion questions and assignments for teaching students about media manipulation. To teach your students how to combat fake news online, see my post on Navigating Post-Truth Societies: Strategies, Resources, and Technologies.
Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York, NY: Anchor Books.
Madden, M. Lenhart, A., & Fontaine, C. (February 2017). How youth navigate the news landscape. Data & Society Research Institute. Retrieved from https://kf-siteproduction.s3.amazonaws.com/publications/
Marwick, A. & Lewis, R. (2017). Media manipulation and disinformation online. Data & Society Research Institute. Retrieved from https://datasociety.net/pubs/oh/DataAndSociety_MediaManipulationAndDisinformationOnline.pdf
Subramanian, S. (February 2017). Inside the Macedonian fake-news complex. WIRED. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2017/02/veles-macedonia-fake-news/
Swift, A. (2016). Americans trust in mass media sinks to new low. Gallup. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/195542/americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-new-low.aspx.