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danah boyd's lesson for the press — and the platforms

On a rare slow news day, I found myself reading and re-reading this talk given by danah boyd at the O
September 17 · Issue #207 · View online
The Interface
On a rare slow news day, I found myself reading and re-reading this talk given by danah boyd at the Online News Association’s annual gathering this weekend. Titled “Media Manipulation, Strategic Amplification, and Responsible Journalism,” the talk examines a variety of subjects that will be familiar to readers of this newsletter. boyd (who styles her name in lowercase) looks at claims of anti-conservative bias; the risks of de-platforming toxic users; the balance between speech and security; and the crisis of trust in the information ecosystem.
You should read (or watch) boyd’s talk for at least two reasons. The first is that she concisely lays out how media manipulation works in our current moment:
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.
These steps rely on the relationship between social media, news media, and search engines.
It’s a playbook we’ve seen run several times over the past few years, with good results for conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. And it ties into the second reason to read boyd’s talk. While folks like me often emphasize the role played by social platforms in empowering bad actors, boyd wants the press to look at its own role in amplifying bad actors:
Phrases like “crisis actor” don’t spread naturally through word-of-mouth networks, even on social media. To get them into the public lexicon, media manipulators must convince major media amplifiers to work on their behalf. Over the last six years, networks of online antagonists have jumped on every mass tragedy to manipulate the media and propel this term into the mainstream. They use fake accounts on social media to talk with journalists, to ask journalists if there is any truth to the idea that witnesses are really crisis actors. They deface Wikipedia entries. They try to manipulate trending topics and autocomplete on search. But algorithmic systems aren’t their target. Journalists are the real target of their digital shenanigans.
Manipulators aren’t trying to get journalists to say that witnesses to gun violence and terrorism are actually crisis actors. Their goal is to get the news media to negate that frame — and negate the conspirators who are propagating that frame. This may be counter-intuitive, but when news media negates a conspiratorial frame, the people who are most open to such a conspiracy will want to self-investigate precisely because they don’t trust the news media.
Here boyd has identified is an extremely thorny problem. On one hand, she’s right that the press ought to consider what it’s giving oxygen to. More than that, like the platforms, the media needs to smarten up about ways that extremists successfully manipulate the media into writing about them.
On the other hand, maintaining boyd’s “strategic silence” on the subject of crisis actors or (to use another boyd example) incels requires a level of cooperation — some would say collusion! — that the national media has rarely shown. I’m less certain that the effects of the media banding together and deciding, as a unit, never to publish the word “incels” would have a positive effect on the information ecosystem.
Moreover, while studies have reached different conclusions here, there’s at least some recent evidence that the so-called “backfire” or “boomerang” effect — which causes people to believe the opposite of what people tell them when it challenges their existing point of view — is overstated.
Finally, I wish boyd’s talk paid more attention to how manipulators exploit the machinery of amplification on social networks to become newsworthy figures in the first place. Alex Jones was a lot less worthy of coverage when he was a local-access TV host; it was harder to ignore him once he was broadcasting to an audience of millions on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. He wouldn’t become a martyr if no one had ever heard of him — and his story just isn’t possible without the platforms and their recommendation algorithms.
But if I’m going to press the social platforms to do better here, I can push myself to do the same. She concludes her message to the press this way:
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. Focus on networks — help connect people to information. Build networks across information and across people. Be an embedded part of the social fabric of this country.
“Building networks across information and across people” has been one of my goals with this newsletter from the beginning. Becoming an embedded part of the social fabric — that’s going to require a different approach. If you have any ideas, I’m all ears.

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