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The fundamentals of media manipulation

May 24, 2017 | By Rande Price, Research VP – DCN

A wired and collaborative culture makes it easy to manipulate the media and with it, public opinion. Today’s digital communication landscape offers a ready means for radicalized groups to bias the media spread their beliefs. Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis offer insightful context to media manipulation and disinformation in their powerful new report, Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online.

The report focuses on how internet subcultures use the media ecosystem to Influence the news and spread their ideas. It identifies who is involved, their motivations, and where they function online. This report is s a must-read in today’s fake news media environment.

Getting to know the bad actor(s) is the starting point. Often bad actors are identified as “alt-right” but Marwick and Lewis point out that this definition is limited. The bad actors include a mix of conspiracy theorists, techno-libertarians, white nationalists, men’s rights advocates, trolls, anti-feminists, anti-immigration activists, as well as bored young people.


Trolling is a strategic tool used by bad actors. The goal of trolling is to incite responses in its targets, be it specific individuals or a group of like-minded people. This internet behavior involves commenting and sharing content and opinions with the intent to anger or frustrate the targeted in order to provoke a reaction.

Four unique characteristics of trolling include:

  1. Deliberate use of offensive speech
  2. Opposition toward sensationalism in the mainstream media
  3. Generate emotional effect in targets
  4. Maintain ambiguity

Conspiracy theorists often use trolling in their attempt to dominate the information on the internet to increases fears about a loss of control.

Currently, top fears include:

  • Loss of white majority in the U.S.
  • Islamophobia
  • Fear of immigration
  • Fear of the emasculation
  • Transphobia and homophobia
  • Fear of Jewish conspiracy
Memes and Bots

An internet meme is another powerful internet tool for galvanizing people around a core issue. A meme, often an image with a comment, portrays a slice of culture. Again, the goal is often provocation as the meme is shared and circulated online. When a distorted or radicalized meme goes viral, it’s a home-run for the bad actor’s team.

Social bots, software that creates content on social media to interact with people, are also significant manipulators of media. Bots can be used to increase the numbers of followers a government official has; or spread propaganda and false information. Often the believability of fake news is based on the number of comments or likes an article receives, which can be generated by bots. Bots can easily add the appearance of weight to the masquerade of fake news.

Conspiracy Theory

Notable online trolls and their conspiracy theorists act as powerful influencers of media manipulation. They have the power to amplify messaging and move marginal beliefs to major concerns in mainstream media. Marwick and Lewis identify two noted leaders in this realm: Richard Spencer, the white supremacist leader of the National Policy Institute and editor of altright.com and Milo Yiannopolous, the anti-feminist, anti-Islam media personality who was pressured to resign from The Breitbart Report. Social participation is encouraged to propagate radical beliefs in mainstream media. Several dedicated blogs, websites, forums and message boards where collaboration of the fringe is encouraged include:

  • Alex Jones’s Infowars – conspiracy theorist
  • Roosh V’s blog Return of Kings – men’s rights movement
  • The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website
  • Sub-threads in comment sections and forums of Right Stuff and The Daily Stormer;
Social Media

Mainstream sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, are also used to spread and amplify extreme messaging. Private groups find social media a fertile place to share thoughts on social networks of similar people. Using Twitter hashtags and Facebook’s like and share symbols allow individuals to rally troops of like-minded people.

Marwick’s and Lewis’ report provides insight into the current mistrusted media landscape. It offers a clear-eyed view as to how the far-right and other radicals are successful at spreading their messaging. It’s only after we understand of how fake news is create and amplified that we can begin to disband the culprits.

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