Media misinformation and disinformation (Part II)

The chapters in this part analyse the role of media and journalism platforms in misinformation and disinformation. They examine the way digital technologies have introduced new forms for the expression of misinformation and populist discourse. Dariya Tsyrenzhapova and Samuel C. Woolley (Chapter 11) open this part by examining the digital interference by Russia in the 2016 US presidential election to analyse computational propaganda campaigns on social media. They draw on the literatures from propaganda studies, reflexive control theory, and information diffusion to conceptualise how false news messages, constructed with the specific intention to engender social disagreement, can be utilised in order to mobilise social movements around the world. Johanna Dunaway (Chapter 12) shows how some of the key concepts discussed in Part 1 of the Companion — echo chambers, filter bubbles — are sometimes blamed for polarisation in the era of post-truth. In reviewing the literature, she posits the argument that ‘cognitive biases, affective polarisation, and sorting are as much to blame for susceptibility to misinformation and the development of misperceptions’ rather than the media and information environment facilitating the dissemination and exposure of misinformation. Dunaway goes on to say that research on misinformation should concentrate on looking at the conditions under which the exposure to misinformation occurs and with what effects. The focus on the epistemology and practice of data journalism is the subject discussed by Oscar Westlund and Alfred Hermida (Chapter 13). They show how data is political — affecting its collection; its availability; the choice of who is included and excluded; and the way it is processed, analysed, and presented. Despite these shortcomings in the data, Westlund and Hermida point out the flaws by showing how journalists repeatedly make authoritative and definitive knowledge claims, instead of indicating the level of credibility present in the data. In the following chapter (14), George Hawley examines the major forms of alt-right media and outlines how the alt-right differed from earlier iterations of the white nationalist movement. He argues that over its relatively short history, the alt-right has relied on different forms of online media to disseminate its message and has effectively used social media to spread its content to a wider audience. In this regard podcasts are an especially important medium for the alt-right. The phenomenon of Fox News is the subject discussed by Reece Peck (Chapter 15). He argues that the resonance of Fox News lies in the populist style of television news that the network innovated rather than an attraction to its conservative ideological orientation as many scholars have posited. Peck explains the components of Fox’s populist epistemological framework, arguing that Fox’s challenge to expert knowledge and technocratic authority is not simply tied to a profit motive but is a representational choice that is directly connected to Fox’s larger populist branding strategy, which interlocks with and is reflective of the ongoing hegemonic project of the American post-war conservative movement.

Declan McDowell-Naylor, Richard Thomas, and Stephen Cushion in Chapter 16 take a contrasting look away from Fox by looking at alternative online political media (AOPM) and asking whether it challenges or exacerbates populism and mis/disinformation or represents just a continuation of partisan news. They discuss whether AOPM provides a corrective role to the mainstream media and remain ambiguous as to whether there is conclusive empirical evidence to link AOPM with contributing to or challenging mis/disinformation or, indeed, contributing to support populist politics. The possible threat from AOPM to the public sphere is left tantalisingly open to future research. Jeannine E. Relly (Chapter 17) is in no doubt about the dangers to the public sphere of online harassment of journalists coming as a direct consequence of populism, mis/disinformation, and impunity. She shows how populist governments frequently disparage news coverage and encourage social media users to attack journalists, particularly women reporters. Anonymous online abusers unleash bots and troll armies to harass and spread disinformation about journalists that inevitably puts them in danger. Around the world, impunity becomes the norm when journalists are killed, populist leaders encourage or create a fertile environment for the attacks, and perpetrators cannot be identified to redress online attackers. Lucas Graves (Chapter 18) uses the questions raised by the ‘infodemic’ of fake news as a platform to articulate several heuristics for thinking about how mediated misinformation matters in public life today — namely, that there’s no such thing as ‘online misinformation’. Misinformation (like information) works by allusion, not reason. Misinformation is an index of political incentive structures; just don’t call it an echo chamber. Each of these reminders is based on gaps or caveats that are often acknowledged, though only rarely addressed, in the growing literature on misinformation. Taken together, he argues, they may help illuminate new priorities for scholars working in this area. Considering how much of both social media and manipulated content is visual, Simon Faulkner, Hannah Guy, and Farida Vis (Chapter 19), in the final piece of Part 11, argue that analysing the role of news images may be a better way to understand misinformation and disinformation. Images and photographs are predominantly examined through a journalistic lens, with a focus on verifying whether an image is ‘true’ or ‘false’, whereas Faulkner, Guy, and Vis consider the socio-political context, which they say is fundamental to comprehending how images maybe used for mis/disinformation purposes.

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