September 23, 2018

We Are All Complicit-ish

By Melissa Ryan

Last week Data and Society founder danah boyd gave a stunning keynote: Media Manipulation, Strategic Amplification, and Responsible Journalism to this year’s Online News Association Conference. The speech has now been analyzed again and again by the audience of reporters she was speaking to, with good reason. boyd’s talk is the best explanation of how media manipulators operate, and how journalists get duped into amplifying said manipulators that I’ve seen. It’s both harsh and sympathetic at the same time.

You are not algorithms. But you are also not neutral. And because you have the power to amplify messages, people also want to manipulate you. That’s just par for the course. And in today’s day and age, it’s not just corporations, governments, and PR shops that have your number. Just as the US military needed to change tactics to grapple with a tribal, networked, and distributed adversary, so must you.

boyd’s description of how hostile actors manipulate us through media and social media is worth absorbing. It applies to so many of our current villains from Alex Jones to Donald Trump. The strategy she lays out is deployed by Russian trolls and homegrown alt-right activists. It’s a playbook they continually return to, because it keeps working.

Media manipulators have developed a strategy with three parts that rely on how the current media ecosystem is structure:

  1. Create spectacle, using social media to get news media coverage.

  2. Frame the spectacle through phrases that drive new audiences to find your frames through search engines.

  3. Become a “digital martyr” to help radicalize others.

I’ve always seen media manipulation through the lens of a digital organizer. When you’re diving into this stuff it’s helpful to know things like how to get a hashtag trending on Twitter, or that you can target an audience of just reporters with Facebook ads. When I’m looking at online trolling campaigns I have a working knowledge of why the perpetrators made the choices they did, who they were trying to inflame, and how they’re collaborating with other actors to achieve shared goals.

As I listened to boyd’s speech I was struck by my own complicity in creating this current hell. Digital organizing is essentially finding your people and mobilizing them to take action. Good digital organizers know how to find the right people, at the right moment, and tap into their emotions in order to motivate them. One of the best ways to do this is to provoke outrage, and this week I’ve thought of several examples from past work where I’ve over amplified someone on the right by highlighting their racism, misogyny, homophobia, or other extremism in digital content I created. I always tried to connect said outrage to real world consequences but looking back I wonder how much I’ve helped extremists and their ideas spread.

I was also struck by boyd’s assessment of the role capitalism plays in all of this:

Many newsrooms twisted themselves in knots to appease financiers — cutting costs, ending pensions, reducing staff, etc. But it was never enough, was it? Publicly traded companies in the United States are not valued for having a double bottom line. If you’re not making more each quarter, you will eventually collapse in this financial context. Trying to appease, the industry doubled down on advertising, failing to recognize how the water was starting to boil.

Again, the parallels to digital organizing are obvious. Most of those examples I could think of? They were fundraising emails. Right wing crazy makes for fantastic fundraising fodder. But how often was I inadvertently giving oxygen and growing the popularity of an extremist for short term gain? This has bothered me ever since I first read Data and Society’s report: The Oxygen of Amplification but boyd’s speech really brought the problem home for me. At the time I thought that I was exploiting their crap to raise money and win. Now I realize activists and organizers are as similarly vulnerable to being duped as well meaning journalists.

We’re all still stumbling our way through this digital dystopian hell. It doesn’t matter if we’re a a reporter, an advocate, or just a citizen trying to navigate what they see online. boyd’s speech calls on us to look beyond our (understandable) anger at tech companies and examine the role each of us plays in amplifying extremism. Beating the trolls requires understanding how they hack our brains just as much as understanding how they’ve hacked social media.


This piece was originally published on September 23, 2018 in the Ctrl Alt-Right Delete newsletter. To read the full September 23rd Ctrl Alt-Right Delete in which it appeared, click here.