My thoughts on Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online

I was interested to see this report on Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online circulating through my networks last week, especially once I saw that one of the co-authors was Alice Marwick, whose work on political/emotional economy of social media I’ve found really valuable in the past. I got a chance to sit down and spend some time with it over the course of the last few days, and here are a few quick thoughts about the piece.

I think the report does a really great job of illustrating how the radical right has figured out ways to exploit the mainstream media’s reliance on “spectacle” in order to get their message across. In particular, Marwick and her co-author Rebecca Lewis document how media organizations have been placed in a sort of double-bind that makes them vulnerable to manipulation. On the one hand, they show that media organizations, and especially local media, have faced serious economic challenges because of internet, which has deprived them of subscription and classified ad revenue. These economic challenges have tended to “hollow out” newspapers, forcing them to reduce crucial reporting and fact-checking labor, often at the behest of corporate newspaper-chain owners that have gobbled up vulnerable local papers. At the same time, Marwick and Lewis write that news organizations have felt more and more pressured by a “constant need for novelty to fill up a 24/7/365 news cycle driven by cable networks and social media.” These pressures leave media organizations particularly vulnerable to trolling, while at the same driving sensationalist news coverage that “enables trolls to maintain a quasi-moral argument that, by trolling, they are exposing the hypocrisy, ignorance, and stupidity of the mainstream media.”

I was also particularly interested in how the Marwick and Lewis document the online right’s strategic appropriation of feelings of weakness and exclusion to radicalize young men. Writing about the spasm of misogynist trolling that labelled itself “gamergate,” they explain that participants were often self-identified “geeks” and that this identity seems based on a feelings of powerlessness.

Although many male geeks are privileged in terms of race and gender, the geek identity has long had a reputation for suffering forms of social oppression.21 They may have been bullied by a “Chad” (internet slang for the stereotypical tanned, buff “bro”) or had a difficult time pursuing romantic relationships. They may be unemployed and uneducated. This is reflected in some of the terms they use to describe themselves—as “betas” (non-alpha, weak, compromised, fragile, or pathetic men) or “NEETs” (Not Engaged in Employment or Training, a term that originated in a report by the Social Exclusion Task Force of the UK government). Thus, they are very resistant to discussions of white privilege and male privilege as they do not see themselves as privileged, but as disadvantaged.

The “beta male” label, which focuses on gender and feelings of resentment at being “passed over” in romantic relationships, reinforces an overall sense the report gives that gender, and particularly anxieties about the changing definition of masculinity, are at work in the psychology of the alt-right. The “NEETs” label, which I was not previously aware of, suggests a possible role for economic forces, which the authors stress we don’t yet fully understand.

This sense of powerlessness seems to be both established and weaponized by the trolling technique of purposefully baiting mainstream media into stern condemnations of memes and hoaxes. The report quotes Ryan Milner and Whitney Philips analysis of the “Pepe the frog” affair, which “intended to goad mainstream journalists and politicians into […] panicking over a cartoon frog.” To cite a more recent example, too recent to be included in Marwick and Lewis’s work, trolls seem to have convinced some media outlets that the “OK” symbol has been appropriated as a white supremacist salute, and goaded them into condemning staffers making the “OK” sign in White House photographs. This technique works in trolls favor in two ways, simulatanously allowing them to demonstrate power by tricking major media outlets, while simulatanously allowing them to claim victimhood at their “persecution” by hostile media.

This jujitsu like technique, intentionally courting (over)reaction on the part of opponents, is one I think poses a particularly difficult challenge to those of us opposing the rise of the new radical right. How can we oppose growing neo-fascist movement in ways that do not provide these movements with seeming “evidence” they can use to convince potential new members of their oppressed status? Moreover, how do we deal with the fact that efforts to dissuade these groups from using public spaces to organize may drive them into private alternative spaces where they only become more noxious and radical (as Marwick and Lewis document happening when 4chan attempted to close its doors to the worst of the racist and sexist participants on the /pol messageboard, who preceeded to decamp to the alternative 8chan where, “Hate speech and extremist ideology flourished on 8chan, now uncontested by the more moderate voices that had been present on 4chan.”) These are serious tactical questions I don’t think we have good answers to yet. We need them. Soon.

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