How did trolls, men’s rights activists, conspiracy theorists, gamergaters, “incels,” neo-Nazis, and a variety of other subcultures end up coming together to engage in one of the most successful disinformation campaigns ever?
A toxic combination of internet savvy, media negligence, and a shared interest in destroying establishment institutions, according to an exhaustive new report from Data & Society.
“Taking advantage of the opportunity the internet presents for collaboration, communication, and peer production, these groups target vulnerabilities in the news media ecosystem to increase the visibility of and audience for their messages,” wrote Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis, authors of the report.
And it’s not a problem that’s going away. The movement now broadly referred to as the alt-right was active around the French election. It’s also picking up steam, finding footholds in other internet subcultures.
“It is troubling how quickly far-right messaging is spreading through subcultural spaces, from sci-fi fans to furries.”
“We believe that far-right radicalization warrants greater attention. It is troubling how quickly far-right messaging is spreading through subcultural spaces, from sci-fi fans to furries,” the report stated.
The actual impact that these groups had on the U.S. presidential election remains a contentious point. Various pieces of data have shown that misinformation spread far and wide, particularly in the weeks before Americans went to the voting booth. Whether this ended up swaying voters is another question.
The Data & Society report doesn’t attempt to answer this question. It does, however, detail what it sees as a significant impact upon the U.S. media.
“While there has been a notable rise in far-right online activity, this would be less significant if the mainstream media had not amplified its messaging,” the report stated. “The mainstream media was susceptible to manipulation from the far-right press due to a number of dynamics: low public trust in media; a proclivity for sensationalism; lack of resources for fact-checking and investigative reporting; and corporate consolidation resulting in the replacement of local publications with hegemonic media brands.”
Danah Boyd, founder and president of Data & Society, a nonprofit institute that focuses on social and cultural issues related to technology, said that while the report focuses on recent developments, much of it is rooted in early internet practices.
“For me, it’s that moment of watching frogs boil,” she said. “You watch it for so long, there’s no discrete ‘oh, my gosh.'”
“I think the biggest shock was the degree to which these networks started to have an impact beyond their own communities,” Boyd said. “They had long been playing journalists and messing with journalists, but it usually wasn’t stuff that would reach the New York Times and Washington Post and CNN. It usually wasn’t rhetoric that we’d see make it to elected officials.”