Manipulation or Not?
So, what to believe?
In the last couple of hours, I read an article and a study, one reassuring and the other scary about the manipulation of the public through legacy and social media by the far right or the nakedly disturbed (guess who?).
Writing about Cambridge Analytica's use of social media data, computer learning, and psychometric targeting to build support for Trump's campaign (sponsored by hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer), history professor Heidi Tworek cautions against over-stating the impact of data-driven targeting and social web wire pulling:
For over a century, there has been a recurrent theme of exaggerating and mythologizing the power of new communications technology to influence mass psychology. Take a deep breath and ensure that we don’t need to wait decades to debunk the new old fear of the manipulated masses.
But the evidence in a study called 'Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online' released today of 'attention hacking' by the far right is both pretty compelling and creepy. The executive summary says it all :
- "Internet subcultures take advantage of the current media ecosystem to manipulate news frames, set agendas, and propagate ideas.
- Far-right groups have developed techniques of “attention hacking” to increase the visibility of their ideas through the strategic use of social media, memes, and bots—as well as by targeting journalists, bloggers, and influencers to help spread content.
- The media’s dependence on social media, analytics and metrics, sensationalism, novelty over newsworthiness, and clickbait makes them vulnerable to such media manipulation.
- While trolls, white nationalists, men’s rights activists, gamergaters, the “altright,” and conspiracy theorists may diverge deeply in their beliefs, they share tactics and converge on common issues.
- The far-right exploits young men’s rebellion and dislike of “political correctness” to spread white supremacist thought, Islamophobia, and misogyny through irony and knowledge of internet culture.
- Media manipulation may contribute to decreased trust of mainstream media, increased misinformation, and further radicalization."
As much as I want to believe professor Tworek's reassurances that this fixation on manipulation may all be a tempest in a teapot, the data appear to be telling us that "the spread of false or misleading information is having real and negative effects on the public consumption of news."