What I found while studying news, disinformation and the audience they (mostly) share
How could someone possibly believe that?
Like many journalists and media researchers, I’ve found myself asking this question about disinformation that has gone viral via social media. Though I’ve spent years learning how and why disinformation is created, I’d never had the opportunity to explore the motivations of the people who believe and share these stories. That is what led me to do more in-depth research during my year as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford.
Over the course of six months, from December 2018 through the spring of 2019, I conducted in-depth interviews with nine Americans who were selected for their relationships with both disinformation and mainstream news. I had planned to interview more participants, but life circumstances got in the way.
Through these conversations, I came to the conclusion that the media industry isn’t facing a disinformation problem as much as an engagement problem. It isn’t merely the insidious and convincing nature of disinformation that drives people to consume, believe or share false news, but is also a profound disconnection from the mainstream media and how it works.
As journalists and media professionals, we don’t like to think someone is better at our job than we are, especially those who seek to undermine our work with misleading or outright made up narratives. So when I ask journalists, “What does disinformation do better than journalism?” I expect a few raised eyebrows.
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to present my forthcoming research project to a selected group of professionals in journalism, technology, education and philanthropy at the Newsgeist unconference, organized annually by Google and the Knight Foundation at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix.
On Saturday morning, An Xiao Mina, Director of Product for Meedan and strategy lead for the Credibility Coalition, and I led a conversation with attendees examining the strengths of journalism and disinformation and what we in media should seek to learn from those strengths. We cheekily called it “Defense Against the Dark Arts,” inspired by none other than the first-year wizardry class in the Harry Potter universe, where students learn about dark magic and how to handle it.
We split the group into four small groups and challenged them to come up with examples of unique strengths of high quality journalism and the countering strengths of effective disinformation. Here is a sampling of what the group came up with.
Strengths of High Quality Journalism*:
Experience and professional training
Many steps, voices and layers involved before publishing
Rules of ethics, code of conduct
Legal liability for what is published
Adherence to industry norms of objectivity and fairness
A shared mission to inform and tell the truth
Support and checks by editors and copyeditors
Empathy through a community connection
Complicity in community action
Complexity in explaining big data, trends and human stories
* We are well aware these are strengths exhibited in only the best of newsrooms. Not all publishers are created equal in this regard (but it would be cool if they were).
Strengths of Effective Disinformation:
Speed of publishing
Novelty and excitement of new information
Responsiveness to news events and reactions
Cooperative amplification between competitors
Simplification of difficult subject matter
Trust through a lack of affiliation and complicity with institutions
Liberated from legal and ethical norms
Playing to emotions, fears, biases and reactions
Recognition of altruism as a motive for publishing (i.e. shedding a light on unknown/hidden information)
Audience participation (i.e. share this to help spread the word)
Tapping into a community’s passions and beliefs
Allowing the audience to feel as if they are part of an investigation or exposure of truths
Drives a desire to share
Successful business model driven by attention economics
Great at targeting on Facebook and other social networks
Offering related content on the same topics
Identity validation of the reader
The bolded strengths above were those we as a group felt are aspirational to be adapted into (or improved) in legitimate journalism practice. Obviously we do not want to incorporate unethical or illegal behavior into our practice, nor do we want to engage in any of the extremes of disinformation. “Simplification of difficult subject matter” in a disinformation context might be oversimplification, and “Drives a desire to share” might be “Manipulations emotions to compel sharing.” It’s important that journalists working in good faith get the balance right.
But many of these strengths are worth of being aspirational. Some of them — like “engaging visuals” and “drives a desire to share” — are skills we are always seeking to improve to compete on a level playing field with more social media-savvy outlets. Others — like “tapping into a community’s passions and beliefs” — are strengths we used to have as news practitioners, but maybe have lost our way in some markets.
These conversations also brought about questions for further reflection in our newsrooms and communities about how we as journalists might improve and what affect those changes might have. These questions also inform my own questions as I embark on my JSK fellowship research.
How is best for news outlets to show information contextually? What effect, if any, does that have on its trustworthiness?
What is the effect of decontexualization of information on the audience?
How much does the brand of the news outlets matter (if at all)?
Does personalization of the news affect its trustworthiness to skeptical audiences?
What is the role of psychological self-preservation in building “echo chambers” for our news consumption?
So what do you think?
Do you agree or disagree with anything in the above strengths lists? What else would you want journalism to learn from disinformation and those who participate in it?
Feel free to comment below or start yelling at me and everyone else on the social network of your choice.
An Xiao Mina contributed to this post. Read more about this year’s Newsgeist from Mathew Ingram
I’ve spent the better part of my career focused on people who live in the internet. Some of them were everyday eyewitnesses who happened to share newsworthy photos or videos. Others were not so everyday – they were trolls, bots or, worse, architects and foot soldiers of disinformation campaigns.
How might news organizations fight misinformation by learning from the people who believe it and share it?
While I still care very much about disinformation,I’m not particularly interested in giving its perpetrators more of my time. Instead, I want to better understand those at the receiving end of these campaigns – the regular people who happen to get caught up in spreading false stories – and what we in media can learn from their experiences.
I came to Stanford because of an interest in design thinking and using that approach to help solve problems within the information system. If you aren’t familiar with the design thinking approach, it is best illustrated as follows:
For the next five months, I intend to focus on the first two aspects of this process, empathizing and defining.
In this study approach, I will be meeting consumers of disinformation where they are – in their homes and communities – to better understand their media habits, their motivations and the struggles they face in trying to find out what is going on in the world. My end goal is to identify common pain points and useful insights from these case studies that can be shared with local newsrooms around the country, in hopes we can work together to find paths to improve audience reach and engagement.
I have discussed this research project with many journalists. About half of those – mostly newsroom executive types – said “I already know why” and proceeded to tell me about the assumed political affiliations, intelligence level and nefarious intentions of this audience.
One newsroom executive at a large news company that covers middle America told me, “I’ll save you the time, it is because they don’t care about the truth.”
That reaction is precisely why I feel this study is important. Journalists, especially news executives, think they have all of the answers as to why a huge swath of their former audience has turned away from the news. If they actually had any of these insights, or made an effort to critically evaluate this group and ask them questions, they might find they actually didn’t know the problem in the first place (let alone the solutions). Assuming we already know all we need to know about the audience and THEY are the problem is pretty much why the journalism industry is in such dire straits.
But on to the next steps:
Right now, I am identifying six to eight broad user types (in design thinking parlance, they are called “extreme users”) within the US to help focus my study. Most people who share false news stories are not activists, trolls, politics junkies or meme creators, but those sort of users in the disinformation ecosystem are well placed to help us identify the needs of a wider population. These users will not be representative of any one group or demographic, but rather, they are case studies focused on the individual and their worldview.
Exactly how I’ll identify my “test subjects” is still in the works, but will largely involve finding individuals who have followed particular sharing patterns on Facebook associated with one of the user types. From there, it’s on me to convince them to participate in the study. This winter, I will go into the field to meet my case study subjects face-to-face, ideally at their homes, to observe their environments and empathetically interview them to better uncover their tension points, media habits and more.
Right now, I’m learning in my d.school classes a bit more about this stage of the process. I’ve found that while I’ve spent my career in journalism, interviewing people from a design thinking approach is very different from doing so as a journalist. We have to keep questions open and without judgement, to observe more than just hear responses and to lean into discomfort and tension instead of away. We have to leave our humanity at the door, to some extent, to record real insights.
The plan right now is for me to have these interviews done by early spring so I can transcribe them, pull out insights, note surprises and identify problem areas for the users, with the hope there will be some commonality between user types. I will then compile those findings into a very basic report, along with case studies on the (not identified) users, to share with newsrooms, who are best placed to take this work into the next stages of ideation, prototyping and testing with their own audiences. Fingers crossed I can get everything done in time.
So what do I need?
For one, I’d love to find partners and collaborators in this endeavor. If you have ideas or feedback for my potential extreme users, identifying text subjects and or best practices in the field research – let me know.
Also, I’ll eventually need some funding. I will be traveling in person to conduct this study in six to eight different locations around the US, which will involve flights, rental cars and likely a few nights in various shady roadside motels. I’ll also want to prove a small payment to my test subjects for their time, as they would expect in any other research study.
If you have feedback, questions, ideas or money you want to toss my way for this project, let me know. This is my first time ever really conducting a research study, so I have a lot to learn, and I’d love for all of you to join me for the ride.