Data & Society recently released a stunning report, Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online. I highly suggest you read it if you care about understanding the rise of neo-fascism, the ‘fake news’ phenomenon, and manipulation of the media that plagued the 2016 US Presidential Election — and how Silicon Valley, particularly social media platforms, facilitated the rise of the alt-right movement and the spread of fascist propaganda. Don’t let the more than 100 pages deter you. The core report is only 50 pages, followed by a few pages of case studies, and finally a whopping 45 pages of citations and bibliography. (Direct download)
The alt-right ‘rally’ of neo-nazi scum and white supremacist cowards that terrorized Charlottesville, Virginia yesterday is undoubtedly a direct result of the manipulation tactics outlined in this report. That is, the proliferation of alt-right propaganda and conspiracy theories combined with the desensitization toward neo-fascist ideology has emboldened these racists and normalized behaviors and beliefs that were once socially unacceptable in the mainstream.
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Again, you should read the full report. But here are few excerpts.
In the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. election, a number of subcultural groups who organize online made a concerted effort to manipulate the existing media infrastructure to promote pro-Trump, populist messages. These messages spread through memes shared on blogs and Facebook, through Twitter bots, through YouTube channels, and even to the Twitter account of Trump himself — and were propagated by a far-right hyper-partisan press rooted in conspiracy theories and disinformation. They influenced the agenda of mainstream news sources like cable television, The Washington Post, and the New York Times, which covered Clinton conspiracy theories more than Trump’s alleged sexual assaults and ties to Russia.
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Mainstream social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are used by members of the far-right to spread extreme messaging to large numbers of people and to seed topics for journalists. On Facebook, private groups share memes, which are then circulated further through personal networks. Facebook is also a central space for spreading misinformation, as it is a popular location for hyper-partisan news organizations and ‘fake news.’ Far-right actors frequently game Twitter’s trending topics feature to amplify certain stories or messages. And YouTube gives a platform to conspiracy theorists and fringe groups who can make persuasive, engaging videos on outrageous topics.
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Bots were used extensively during the 2016 presidential election. For instance, during the first presidential debate, bots generated 20% of the Twitter posts about the debate, despite representing only 0.5% of users. Significantly more of this traffic came from pro-Trump bots than pro-Clinton bots. This remained constant throughout the election; researchers estimate that about a third of all pro-Trump tweets on Twitter were generated by bots, more than four times that of pro-Clinton tweets. Many of these bots spread what is known as ‘computational propaganda’: misinformation and negative information about opposition candidates.
The impact of bots on political discourse is unknown, but research suggests it can have significant amplification effects. Bots are cheap and easy to deploy, and constantly-changing, so they can be quickly leveraged to spread information on current issues.
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For manipulators, it doesn’t matter if the media is reporting on a story in order to debunk or dismiss it; the important thing is getting it covered in the first place. The amount of media coverage devoted to specific issues influences the presumed importance of these issues to the public. This phenomenon, called agenda setting, means that the media is remarkably influential in determining what people think about.
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Social media — and largely, the internet as a whole — is an attention economy where the most valued content is that which is most likely to attract attention. The overload of information enabled by the internet makes attention an extremely valuable resource. Viral content, from funny videos to sensational headlines, garners the clicks, retweets, and likes, and thus advertising revenue. Online media … use this knowledge of virality to produce brand-sponsored content or refine social messaging. Thus, in a media-saturated world, both traditional and new media seek to cover whatever can attract ‘eyeballs.’