Reviewing the existing literature
Communication on social media is overwhelmingly visual (Faulkner et al. 2018), but this key way in which online disinformation is spread has been overlooked in the emerging research (Wardle & Derakhsan 2017). The lack of focus on images is also a wider issue within social media research (Thelwall et al. 2015; Faulkner et al. 2018). Researchers instead lean towards
‘the text-only aspects of online communication’, in part because images are considered more complicated to understand and analyse (Highfield & Leaver 2016, 48). This knowledge gap has also been highlighted by Tucker et al. (2018), who identify ‘disinformation spread through images and video’ (7) as a key gap in research where understanding is ‘urgently needed’ (61). They note that most disinformation research ‘focuses on the textual rather than the visual and audiovisual component of these messages’ (47). These sentiments are echoed by other scholars; Fallis (2015) argues that misleading images ‘might easily be more epistemically dangerous than misleading words’ because images (especially lens-based images) have greater evidentiary value (417). Innes (2020) argues that images are a key component of disinformation and that they are used ‘to try and persuade their audiences about the ultimate “truth” of their knowledge claims’. He adds that ‘Photographs and videos possess an almost inherent persuasive potency’ (13).
More specifically, recontextualised images, in which the original context for the image has been removed and replaced with a falsified context, are identified by several scholars as particularly pervasive. Tucker et al. (2018) explicitly highlight that ‘we know very little about’ recontextualised images (48). Tandoc et al. (2018) note that ‘misappropriated’ images are ‘an increasingly widespread practice’ for spreading disinformation (145). Taken together, these studies suggest that image-based disinformation is potentially more harmful, particularly when involving images taken out of their original context and placed in a false context ‘to support a concocted narrative’ (Tandoc et al. 2018,145).
A core element of disinformation as pushed by right-wing populists (including the so-called alt-right) is the reshaping of truth and who can be trusted to provide this. Hameleers (2020) has explored common themes of populist disinformation, identifying that crime and immigration are key topics, both intrinsically linked to race. He notes that, from a European right-wing populist perspective, ‘Islam is the greatest threat to the Western world’, and the mainstream media’s supposed ‘omittance’ of this shows that the media work to protect these ‘“dangerous” others’ (111). This message is further underpinned by a strong rationale of‘us’ versus ‘them’. A significant consequence of sharing such divisive disinformation is that it may work to strengthen existing societal divisions and antagonisms; those who align with populist discourse become further entrenched within it, and those who reject it become stronger in their resistance (Hameleers 2020). In a European context Heiss and Matthes (2020) examined populist content on Facebook in Germany and Austria, which was dominated by angry anti-elitist and anti-immigration discourse. The latter ‘emerged as the most distinguishing factor’ of rightwing populist ‘communication on Facebook . . . the unique selling point of right-wing populism’ (317). Krzyzanowski’s (2020) study of populist rhetoric in Poland since 2015 highlights how pervasive this content is and also that it is not simply limited to social media. This study points out how normalised these discourses have become, resulting in a shift towards more explicit right-wing populist themes in the mainstream media and specifically towards immigration; immigrants, predominantly Muslims, are presented as a dangerous invasion and a threat to European culture and values. These claims are often underpinned by disinformation. This situation allows for the creation of ungrounded arguments, in which disinformation and ‘fake news’ are accepted as truth ‘due to their civil appearance which effectively normalises them in political and media discourse and in both traditional and online public spheres’ (25). Overall, however, the research on the content of populist/alt-right disinformation online is still limited, as observed by Panizo-Lledot et al. (2019). Yet even with the limited research into this topic to date, it is evident that anti-immigration and racist rhetoric is a key component of right-wing populist online disinformation.
Discussions about visual disinformation and how to address it continue to be significant within journalism. These discourses around verification practices have also shaped academic thinking on this issue. For journalists, the crux of image verification has focused on establishing if the image is actually what they think it is or others claim it to be. Whilst this continues to be a vital method, the techniques and strategies frequently deployed in mis- and disinformation, across a range of forms of media manipulation, mean it is also key to consider how images are used, how they are shared and by whom, and ultimately what meanings and effects they produce.
In our research we have gone beyond standard forms of journalistic image verification by combining methods from art history with questions designed specifically for mis- and disinformation content (Vis et al. 2020). Our framework, 20 Questions for Interrogating Social Media Images,1 is an additional tool journalists and others can use when investigating images. It consists of 20 questions for social media images (still image, video, gif, etc.), with an additional 14 questions aimed at different aspects of mis- and disinformation. The questions do not appear in a set order, but these five are central: What is it? What does it show? Who made it? What did it mean? What does it mean? Whilst these questions significantly take us beyond the standard approaches to verification, especially where they address meaning, it is also important to show how expansive such an exploration into the wider meanings and contexts of an image can be. This chapter aims to do just that. We now turn to our two case studies to explore in more detail examples of image-based right-wing populist disinformation that relate to the wider context of Brexit and themes of immigration and racism.