23 09 18

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.

CARD game: where the cards are all losers

Between now and election day Ctrl Alt-Right Delete is highlighting the candidates you need to know about — as trading cards. We’ll feature at least one candidate card per week. This week’s card features Matt Gaetz, a Republican conspiracy theorist and incumbent seeking reelection.

From HOPE not hate: A Global Anti-Globalist Movement: The Alternative Right and Globalization

By Simon Murdoch

For many, the Alternative Right came into view as distinctly American phenomenon; a coterie of young white men whose deluded aggrievement made them believe they were the vanguard halting the “American carnage” Donald Trump railed against in his inauguration speech. They saw themselves as defenders of the First Amendment, of memorialised Confederate generals, and of a vision of who an American can be that vehemently eschewed the 1965 Immigration Act and its commitment to admit the “wretched refuse” of all teeming shores.

This perception of the origins and interests of the Alternative Right is not entirely askew but it belies its truly global presence and outlook. Drawn together at an unprecedented scale by the globalizing technologies of the digital age and spurred on by events which exemplified this connected world – from 9/11 and the 2008 Financial Crash, to the rise of ISIS and the Mediterranean Refugee Crisis – our modern era set the stage for a thoroughly internationalist far right that propounds a racist and illiberal alternative to the vision of globalization a generation grew up with.

Read more>>


  • HOPE not hate has published our National Conversation On Immigration report. Over the last 15 months, we have carried out the largest ever public engagement in the UK, to better understand how we can rebuild public trust on this often divisive issue. The National Conversation engaged 19,951 people, with more than 130 meetings in 60 locations across every nation and region of the UK.
  • Data and Society is out with a new report from Becca Lewis: Alternative Influence Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube. We’ve seen a lot of research about how YouTube functions as a radicalization engine but Lewis looks primarily at how right wing YouTube influencers market and brand themselves to grow their audiences.
  • The Southern Poverty Law Centre have produced a new report on Racial Profiling in Louisiana: Unconstitutional and Counterproductive. It shows how the unconstitutional practice of law enforcement targeting individuals due to the color of their skin – remains an egregious and common form of discrimination and continues to taint the legitimacy of policing in the United States.


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