Understanding disinformation is impossible without first understanding its audience

Mandy Jenkins

I’ve spent the better part of my career focused on people who live in the internet. Some of them were everyday eyewitnesses who happened to share newsworthy photos or videos. Others were not so everyday — they were trolls, bots or, worse, architects and foot soldiers of disinformation campaigns.

There are many, many studies out there focused on disinformation — its creation, its proliferation via mainstream media, the psychology of online crowds pushing these narratives, the role of social networks, etc. Most study of disinformation is typically focused on the overall system.

I want to do something different in my fellowship year at Stanford. My research question for this year is:

How might news organizations fight misinformation by learning from the people who believe it and share it?

While I still care very much about disinformation, I’m not particularly interested in giving its perpetrators more of my time. Instead, I want to better understand those at the receiving end of these campaigns — the regular people who happen to get caught up in spreading false stories — and what we in media can learn from their experiences.

I came to Stanford because of an interest in design thinking and using that approach to help solve problems within the information system. If you aren’t familiar with the design thinking approach, it is best illustrated as follows:

The design thinking approach, illustrated.

For the next five months, I intend to focus on the first two aspects of this process, empathizing and defining.

In this study approach, I will be meeting consumers of disinformation where they are — in their homes and communities — to better understand their media habits, their motivations and the struggles they face in trying to find out what is going on in the world. My end goal is to identify common pain points and useful insights from these case studies that can be shared with local newsrooms around the country, in hopes we can work together to find paths to improve audience reach and engagement.

I have discussed this research project with many journalists. About half of those — mostly newsroom executive types — said “I already know why” and proceeded to tell me about the assumed political affiliations, intelligence level and nefarious intentions of this audience.

One newsroom executive at a large news company that covers middle America told me, “I’ll save you the time, it is because they don’t care about the truth.”

That reaction is precisely why I feel this study is important. Journalists, especially news executives, think they have all of the answers as to why a huge swath of their former audience has turned away from the news. If they actually had any of these insights, or made an effort to critically evaluate this group and ask them questions, they might find they actually didn’t know the problem in the first place (let alone the solutions). Assuming we already know all we need to know about the audience and THEY are the problem is pretty much why the journalism industry is in such dire straits.

But on to the next steps:

Right now, I am identifying six to eight broad user types (in design thinking parlance, they are called “extreme users”) within the US to help focus my study. Most people who share false news stories are not activists, trolls, politics junkies or meme creators, but those sort of users in the disinformation ecosystem are well placed to help us identify the needs of a wider population. These users will not be representative of any one group or demographic, but rather, they are case studies focused on the individual and their worldview.

Exactly how I’ll identify my “test subjects” is still in the works, but will largely involve finding individuals who have followed particular sharing patterns on Facebook associated with one of the user types. From there, it’s on me to convince them to participate in the study. This winter, I will go into the field to meet my case study subjects face-to-face, ideally at their homes, to observe their environments and empathetically interview them to better uncover their tension points, media habits and more.

Right now, I’m learning in my d.school classes a bit more about this stage of the process. I’ve found that while I’ve spent my career in journalism, interviewing people from a design thinking approach is very different from doing so as a journalist. We have to keep questions open and without judgement, to observe more than just hear responses and to lean into discomfort and tension instead of away. We have to leave our humanity at the door, to some extent, to record real insights.

Many a Post-It note will die to bring us this information.

The plan right now is for me to have these interviews done by early spring so I can transcribe them, pull out insights, note surprises and identify problem areas for the users, with the hope there will be some commonality between user types. I will then compile those findings into a very basic report, along with case studies on the (not identified) users, to share with newsrooms, who are best placed to take this work into the next stages of ideation, prototyping and testing with their own audiences. Fingers crossed I can get everything done in time.

So what do I need?

For one, I’d love to find partners and collaborators in this endeavor. If you have ideas or feedback for my potential extreme users, identifying text subjects and or best practices in the field research — let me know.

Also, I’ll eventually need some funding. I will be traveling in person to conduct this study in six to eight different locations around the US, which will involve flights, rental cars and likely a few nights in various shady roadside motels. I’ll also want to prove a small payment to my test subjects for their time, as they would expect in any other research study.

If you have feedback, questions, ideas or money you want to toss my way for this project, let me know. This is my first time ever really conducting a research study, so I have a lot to learn, and I’d love for all of you to join me for the ride.

Mandy Jenkins

Written by

GM at The Compass Experiment and ONA President. Formerly: JSK 2019, Storyful, DFM Thunderdome, Huffington Post, TBD, Cincinnati Enquirer.

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