Combating Media Manipulation

The News Integrity Initiative and Craig Newmark Philanthropies are joining forces to support Data & Society’s Media Manipulation Initiative

Data & Society has just released two groundbreaking pieces of research that contribute substantially to our collective understanding of disinformation and polarization:

In collaboration with the Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the News Integrity Initiative is proud to have supported this research, as well as Data & Society’s broader Media Manipulation Initiative, with a $1.5 million grant.

In “The Oxygen of Amplification,” Whitney Phillips interviews staff writers, editors and freelancers about the mainstream media’s role in the amplification of extreme agendas, particularly during the 2016 presidential election:

“The takeaway for establishment journalists is stark, and starkly distressing: just by showing up for work and doing their jobs as assigned, journalists covering the far-right fringe — which subsumed everything from professional conspiracy theorists to pro-Trump social media shitposters to actual Nazis — played directly into these groups’ public relations interests. In the process, this coverage added not just oxygen, but rocket fuel to an already-smoldering fire.”

Crucially, the report devotes an entire section to recommendations for editorial “better practices” that journalists can implement right now for reporting on online bigots and manipulators . At the same time, she emphasizes that there are larger, longer-term structural fixes that newsrooms must implement in order to mitigate the spread and harm of disinformation.

Searching for Alternative Facts” by Francesca Tripodi is an ethnographic look at how self-identified conservatives in Virginia search for truth in the contemporary news landscape. Conservatives in her study are active news consumers, who seek out a variety of news and information sources, which they then compare and contrast with their lived experiences. Tripodi refers to this as “scriptural inference” — skills they have developed in their Biblical study, which prioritizes analyzing primary sources (e.g. presidential speeches, the Constitution, etc.) as they seek the truth.

One of the key findings in Tripodi’s report is that the conservatives in her study also rely on Google — as many people do — to help them fact-check. Seemingly innocuous syntax differences in search terms, however, can and do yield different algorithmic recommendations. In turn, this can expose individuals who consider themselves “mainline conservatives” to substantially more radical content, particularly from those who seek to reinforce and prey on the distrust of the mainstream media.

If this sounds familiar, you may recall that Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people in a Charleston church, has claimed that a series of Google searches, starting with “black on white crime,” played a major role in developing his racist beliefs. (For more a more detailed look at algorithm biases, read this interview with Safiya Umoja Noble on her recently-published book, “Algorithms of Oppression.”)

Combating media manipulation is one of the News Integrity Initiative’s three areas of focus, and this particular research is at the heart of our strategies to connect journalists to the most up-to-date disinformation research and give them tips and skills for applying the research to their work. We are already working closely with Data & Society to scale their outreach efforts to journalists, media makers, and others concerned with the spread of disinformation, and see this as core to our ongoing work.

An industry-wide response to increasingly sophisticated and frequent disinformation tactics is critical, but so too are the individual choices that journalists make about how and what to report. We believe that journalists can be the heroes we need right now, and that Data & Society’s research, rapid-response unit, and leadership can show them the way.


Read the grant announcement from Data & Society here.

For more of Data & Society’s Media Manipulation Initiative research, check these out: Dead Reckoning: Navigating Content Moderation After “Fake News”; Lexicon of Lies: Terms for Problematic Information; and Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online.