Outrage against the machine, digital communication networks, link rot

MisDisMal-Information 46

What is this? MisDisMal-Information (Misinformation, Disinformation and Malinformation) aims to track information disorder and the information ecosystem largely from an Indian perspective. It will also look at some global campaigns and research.

What this is not? A fact-check newsletter. There are organisations like Altnews, Boomlive, etc., who already do some great work. It may feature some of their fact-checks periodically.

Welcome to Edition 46 of MisDisMal-Information

In this edition

  • Outrage as a genre

  • Information about Takshashila’s course on Technology and Policy

  • Identity, News and Digital Communication Networks

  • …Meanwhile, in India: Pegasus and polarity, social media on FIR(e)

  • Some good reads

  • Changes to MisDisMal-Information

Outrage in and against the machine

‘Outrage as a business model’ that’s the headline from a recent article investigating The Daily Wire’s use of Facebook ‘to build an empire’ [Miles Parks - NPR]. There’s a lot of detail in the article, but here are some key assertions it makes:

  • The Daily Wire’s (defined as a conservative, non-mainstream news source in the article) engagement per article on Facebook is significantly higher than outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, CNN and Fox News, as well as conservative non-mainstream counterparts like Breitbart News, The Blaze and The Western Journal.

  • In general, these conservative non-mainstream counterparts receive higher engagement on Facebook than mainstream sources named earlier. I should point out that there is a distinction between engagement, reach and persuasion.

  • Its coverage is selective and ‘bolster(s) the conservative agenda.’

  • It does not produce a lot of ‘original reporting’ and mainly ‘repackages’ content from others while introducing a ‘slant’.

  • A direct quote: “has turned anger into an art form and recycled content into a business model.”

From that last bullet point, I will segue into what Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj say in The Outrage Industry. They define Outrage as a genre (it was first published in 2013, so there is a focus on talk radio, tv news and blogs - but you can see many of the points extending to the use of social media platforms as well).

And distinguish it from emotion (emphasis added):

“What distinguishes this type of discourse is not that it seeks to evoke emotion in the political arena. On the contrary, emotional speech has an important place in political life, and many emotional appeals are not outrageous. What makes outrage distinctive are the tactics used in an effort to provoke the emotion.

And incivility:

“outrage is incivility writ large. It is by definition uncivil but not all incivility is outrage. Rude behavior such as eye-rolling, sighing, and the like are not outrageous because they do not incorporate the elements of malfeasant inaccuracy and intent to diminish that characterize outrage.”

So, what it is then? They identify some attributes:

  1. Has a discursive style to elicit reactions through ‘overgeneralisation, sensationalism, misleading/inaccurate information, ad hominem attacks, and ridicule’. It favours “melodrama, misrepresentative exaggeration, mockery, and hyperbolic forecasts of impending doom” over nuance.

  2. Personality centred where the voice of other participants take a back seat to a single dominant voice whose worldview drives things forward.

  3. Reactive in the sense that such content often starts out as a ‘response’ to events that need to be ‘unpacked’ or ‘reinterpreted’.

  4. Ideologically selectiveness follows from 3 in that the dominant actors from 2 can choose/define what they react to.

  5. Engaging since it is essentially a performance.

  6. Marked by ‘internal intertextuality’, i.e. outrage content producers frequently refer to one another.

  7. Rely on oversimplification to communicate.

Pause here for a second and think about how much content we come across today checks many of these boxes, even the things we agree with.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight in 2021, it doesn’t seem surprising to see that they attributed the differences between the incentives of the day and those in the past to the increase in the number of ‘venues’, speed of circulation, the interplay between mainstream news and outrage venues.

There’s a stress on the supply-side of outrage-driven content, the changed dynamics of which are attributed to the fragmentation of audiences. In a public sphere with few venues, the incentives of content producers are (generally) to offend the least amount of people possible. In a fragmented public sphere where the aim is to reach ‘niche’ audiences, that may no longer apply (bullets added).

“structural changes we describe have rendered outrage politically and financially profitable, whether those profits appear in the form of

  • increased advertising revenues (linked directly to ratings and traffic) or

  • fundraising dollars … or

  • political support, coming in the form of votes, increased support for policy positions, or

  • increased membership in advocacy groups.”

Put another way, tribalism (of a certain kind) seems to bring profits for outrage-driven content producers. Note: they do clarify that fragmentation is not the only factor - social, cultural and political forces also shape what kind of content is ultimately financially profitable <thinks about nightly TV news ‘debates’ and shudders>.

So, there is a demand-side to it as well (that doesn’t absolve supply-side actors, though). In Angrynomics, Eric Lonergan contends that there are 2 sides to ‘public anger’ - moral outrage and tribal rage :

  • Moral outrage: The positive form which seeks to draw attention to a problem that needs to be fixed.

  • Tribal rage: Negative form that wants to dominate, suppress or destroy.

(the interesting bit about this distinction is that it probably isn’t free from tribal considerations when classifying a display of public anger as moral outrage or tribal rage)

Again, there is a stress on (a subset of) supply-side actors:

“cynical politicians effortlessly play on both forms of anger to garner support.”

One can reasonably argue that it is no longer just politicians who do this, which is the case the NPR story is trying to make for The Daily Wire and Ben Shapiro. And, I am guessing most of you can point to multiple examples that pre-date The Daily Wire.

On why outrage works, Berry and Sobieraj say:

“outrage works. It works because its coarseness and emotional pull offer the “pop” that breaks through the competitive information environment, and it works because it draws on so many of our existing cultural touchstones: celebrity culture, reality television, a two-party system, as well as the conventional news and opinion to which those in the United States have become accustomed”

They also refer to the collapse of local news, which is fairly common in any literature that tries to make sense of our fraying social norms [Sample: Murtaza Hussain - The Intercept, or the U.S. Antitrust Subcommittee Report]. Yet, not all of these will make sense in every context. In India, we’re certainly not a two-party polity, and I am afraid I know little about the role of our ‘local news outlets’ (if you’ve come across something along these lines, please reach out to me!) and often struggle to arrive at an answer for how local is local enough (city-level? state-level?). So while I’m not sure I agree with the attributes listed in the last quote, I do agree with this:

“Recognizing the economic underpinnings of the genre is vital for a more complete understanding of its prevalence, as these insights advance our ability to recognize the phenomena as culturally and politically dependent, but not reducible to culture or politics. Without this lens, the repetition of outrage discourse across media platforms can be read erroneously as an indicator of a landmark shift in political orientation on the part of the audience or of profound cultural intolerance and insularity.”

I think we need to do this specifically for India without importing assumptions.

They do list 2 caveats of sorts, though:

  • It isn’t necessary that advertisers will dictate content choices. In fact, they frame this as a ‘narrow view’. It probably holds true for most advertisers, but there is scope to consider how it can impact choices/incentives when there is a heavy dependency on a subset of advertisers.

  • Commercially driven media will not always lead to adverse outcomes for democracy. Rather they are indifferent to it (you’ll recall that the paper cited in 45: Collective behaviour as a crisis discipline made a similar assessment).

Related 1: Read Whitney Phillips on ‘Smokescreen Trolling’ [Wired]

Trumpist politicians have earned the label by adopting the exact strategies and tactics that 4chan’s trolls perfected throughout the aughts. These strategies include driving wedges between groups, sowing distrust in institutions, and undermining good-faith civic discourse through tactics like over-the-top provocation, tricking people into repeating sensationalist claims, gaming algorithms and keyword search, weaponizing hot-button cultural issues, organizing false outrage campaigns, coordinating targeted harassment (often by directing a “personal army” against a chosen victim), and generally gaslighting.

Related 2: A study by Steve Rathje, Jay J. Van Bavel, and Sander van der Linden on the relationship between out-group animosity and engagement on social media [PNAS]

We report evidence that posts about political opponents are substantially more likely to be shared on social media and that this out-group effect is much stronger than other established predictors of social media sharing, such as emotional language. 

Yes, yes, you can consider this an ad. But if you do like the things I write about (I would hope so, especially if you’ve subscribed), then you will probably find the Technology and Policy course interesting.

You can find out more here.

Identity, News and Digital Communication Networks

About a month ago, Reuters Institute published its 2021 Digital News Report. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (whom I have quoted/mentioned many times) put out a fascinating thread summarising some of the key points.

One tweet stood out to me. Note the height of the ‘personalities’ bar on platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok (aside: except for Twitter, politicians and political activists seem to do only marginally better than ‘other/none’).

Jennifer Neda John wrote about the tendency of Gen Z to believe misinformation [MIT Tech Review]. She attributed it to the primacy of identity:

young people are more likely to believe and pass on misinformation if they feel a sense of common identity with the person who shared it in the first place

And when trust is built on identity, authority shifts to influencers. Thanks to looking and sounding like their followers, influencers become trusted messengers on topics in which they have no expertise. According to a survey from Common Sense Media, 60% of teenagers who use YouTube to follow current events turn to influencers rather than news organizations. Creators who have built credibility see their claims elevated to the status of facts while subject matter experts struggle to gain traction

And, our good friend ‘information overload’. But the bit about identity seems to align with the Reuters Institute report. And keep in mind that these networks are growing significantly and skew younger in their demographics. And these platforms have varying affordances. I am reminded of Benedict Evans’ post on content moderation:

I wonder how far the answers to our problems with social media are not more moderators, just as the answer to PC security was not virus scanners, but to change the model - to remove whole layers of mechanics that enable abuse. So, for example, Instagram doesn’t have links, and Clubhouse doesn’t have replies, quotes or screenshots. Email newsletters don’t seem to have virality. Some people argue that the problem is ads, or algorithmic feeds (both of which ideas I disagree with pretty strongly - I wrote about newsfeeds here), but this gets at the same underlying point: instead of looking for bad stuff, perhaps we should change the paths that bad stuff can abuse.

Instagram and TikTok limit the use of links, but they still have virality. Email newsletters may not have ‘packaged virality’, but I suspect the identity aspect plays a significant role (this is a gut feel, I don’t have data to back this up). Whatsapp has no inbuilt algorithm or ads (perhaps there is a case to be made for inorganic content pushes to be called external algorithms (middleware?😜)). Low-quality information is resilient, though, and seems to find a way to spread anyway. Some of these platforms are also harder to study/analyse (aside: See Brandy Zadrozny’s story, which includes an ISD Global study on the role of TikTok audio in misinformation virality).

Note, this is not me saying social media platforms have no role to play or borrowing from Nick Clegg’s Two To Tango to pin the responsibility on people. Instead of getting caught in this binary, in a forthcoming paper, we argue that terms like Big Tech, social media platforms, etc., are imprecise and limiting. Instead, we propose the term Digital Communication Networks (DCNs) and define them as compositing entities consisting of:

  • Capability: Internet-based products/services that enable instantaneous, low-cost/free global communication across geographic, social, and cultural boundaries – to private (1:1), limited (1:n e.g. via SM/ messaging groups), and broad (twitter feed, FB pages, YT videos, Live streaming etc.) audiences

  • Operator(s): Firms/groups that design/operate these products and services.

  • Networks: The entities/groups/individuals that adopt/use these products and services and their interaction with each other.

The purpose of this framing is to study them from the perspective of their effects on societies as a whole rather than focusing just on specific companies, technologies, sharing mechanisms, user dynamics, etc., which are constantly evolving.

…Meanwhile, in India…

▶️ Pegasus and Polarity

I’m deliberately not going into the weeds with the Pegasus Project and associated news stories for a few reasons. We’re still seeing reportage coming through, so we don’t yet have a complete picture. But it has been interesting (and simultaneously unsurprising + terrifying) to watch the back and forth about the origin/integrity of the list and the range of responses among various political actors.

Shehla Shora, Dibyendu Mishra and Joyojeep Pal published some very interesting research on the journalists that were reportedly targeted. Based on a sample of followers and the activity of ~40K politicians, they classified journalists on a scale from being polarised in favour of or against the NDA.

▶️ Social Media on FIR(e)

  • Karnataka has filed sedition cases against 46 individuals for social media posts [Mohit Rao - Article 14].

  • Tamil Nadu has filed 75 FIRs for ‘posting defamatory content on social media’ in May and June, of which 19 have been arrested [The News Minute].

Some good reads

▶️ What the history of disinformation can teach us

Heidi Tworek (whose work I wrote about in 25: Of regulating information and disorder) writes about what we can learn from the history of disinformation [CIGIOnline].

Including a quote on the role of historical perspectives. The article has a lot of nuance that I cannot hope to capture with a few quotes.

As Sam Haselby has put it, “Think of history as the depth and breadth of human experience, as what actually happened. History makes the world, or a place and people, what it is, or what they are. In contrast, think of the past as those bits and pieces of history that a society selects in order to sanction itself, to affirm its forms of government, its institutions and dominant morals.” Too often, policy makers use “the past” rather than history, even though the historical discipline may have a surprising amount to offer.

A historian will not supply easy answers, and historians will almost inevitably mention how historical knowledge itself can be abused to justify problematic approaches. At the same time, history enables us to open up our imaginations to alternative information ecosystems, to understand path dependency, and to avoid offering simplistic silver-bullet solutions that have not worked in the past.

▶️ The Internet is rotting

This is a long but fascinating piece by Jonathan Zittrain which has a lot to unpack [The Atlantic]. One of the key bits was link rot:

We found that 50 percent of the links embedded in Court opinions since 1996, when the first hyperlink was used, no longer worked. And 75 percent of the links in the Harvard Law Review no longer worked.

The New York Times, I was able to analyze approximately 2 million externally facing links found in articles at nytimes.com since its inception in 1996. We found that 25 percent of deep links have rotted. (Deep links are links to specific content—think theatlantic.com/article, as opposed to just theatlantic.com.) The older the article, the less likely it is that the links work. If you go back to 1998, 72 percent of the links are dead. Overall, more than half of all articles in The New York Times that contain deep links have at least one rotted link.

Related: Link Rot is the reason a porn site was able to embed videos on the likes of Washington Post, Huffington Post, etc. [Matthew Gault, Jason Koebler - Vice]

▶️ Treating social media companies like Big Tobacco

Joan Donovan and Jennifer Nilsen suggest that misinformation is like secondhand smoke and ask that social media is treated as a ‘consumer product’ and fund research to determine the ‘true costs of misinformation’.

Misinformation goes beyond an individual publishing or sharing something on the internet that’s inaccurate. It also undermines the quality and safety of our communication infrastructure, as it’s easily overrun by corrosive falsehoods and networked conspiracies at a moment’s notice.

Social media is built for openness and scale, not safety or accuracy. Instead, repetition, redundancy, reinforcement and responsiveness are the mechanisms by which content on social media circulates, drives public conversation and eventually becomes convincing — not truth. When users of social media see a claim over and over, across multiple platforms, they start to feel it to be more true, especially as groups interact with it, whether or not it is.

Changes to MisDisMal Information

Ok, so if you’re wondering where this vanished for nearly a month. I don’t have a good answer other than I was chasing a few deadlines. But, in over a year of doing this, I’ve realised a few things. Like many other fields, there is a lot of day-to-day activity (some of it is noise, some of it is useful), but the overall rate of change is pretty slow. So while I’ve spent countless hours figuring out who said what, who said what first, who responded, how sometimes I’ve felt I am making the same points over and over. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, or maybe I need to change things up a bit. I am going for the latter. Here’s what I am trying for the next few months

  • Instead of weekly (mostly), MisDisMal-Information will now go out thrice a month - on the 5th, 15th, 25th.

  • The substack version will reduce its focus on ‘newsy’ content and attempt to focus on medium or long term trends.