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Efforts to exploit technical, social, economic and institutional configurations of media can catalyze social change, sow dissent, and challenge the stability of social institutions.

The Media Manipulation Initiative (MMI) examines how different groups use the participatory culture of the internet to turn the strengths of a free society into vulnerabilities, ultimately threatening expressive freedoms and civil rights. Broadly, this initiative takes a sociotechnical approach to understanding the social, political, economic incentives to game information systems, websites, platforms, and search engines, especially in cases where the attackers intend to destabilize democratic, social, and economic institutions. Through empirical research, we identify the unintended consequences of the design of socio-technical systems and track attempts to locate and address threats, with an eye towards increasing organizational capacity across fields, so that action can be taken as problems emerge.

From social movements, to political parties, governments, dissidents, and corporations, many groups engage in active efforts to shape media narratives. Media manipulation tactics include: planting and/or amplifying misinformation and disinformation using humans (troll armies, doxxing, and bounties) or digital tools (bots); targeting journalists or public figures for social engineering (psychological manipulation); gaming of trending and ranking algorithms, and coordinating action across multiple user accounts to force topics, keywords, or questions into the public conversation. We study media manipulation to illustrate how political and infrastructural opportunities afforded by the internet can have dire implications for society. Because the internet is a tool, a territory, and a tactic that is integral to challenging relations of power, studying the interstitial space of sociotechnical systems is fundamental to the future of democracy.


Illustration by Jim Cooke

Research Tracks for the Media Manipulation Initiative

01

Manipulation, Digital Infrastructures, and Political Opportunities

Analyzing how social movements use, leverage, and manipulate digital infrastructures to create or take advantage of political opportunities.

02

Manipulation of Socio-technical Systems

Tracking and historicizing the tools, tactics, and techniques of groups who seek to exploit socio-technical systems for profit, politics, or fun.

03

Media, Mobilization, and Political Identity

Researching the effects of echo chambers, filter bubbles, analytics, and the engagement of audiences on political media makers, consumers, and distributors.

04

The Political Economy of Media and Platforms

Investigating how media makers and platforms, from small entrepreneurs to multinational corporations, monetize content and value advertising at different scales. Within this track, we also assess the legal, regulatory, and governance regimes of the internet and the shifting roles of platform corporations in the public sphere.

Team Bios

Joan Donovan

Joan Donovan (PhD, University of California San Diego) is the Media Manipulation Research Lead at Data and Society Research Institute, where she researches how the internet became a political tool. She received her PhD in Sociology and Science Studies at University of California San Diego, where she studied activist communication networks. After UCSD, she went to UCLA for a Post-Doc at the Institute for Society and Genetics, where she studied white nationalists use of science and DNA ancestry tests in the search for racial purity.

Alice E. Marwick

Alice E. Marwick (PhD, New York University) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she researches the social, political, and cultural implications of popular social media technologies. She is currently interested in the role of gender in far-right radicalization and its links to online harassment and digital inequality. Her current book project examines how the networked nature of online privacy disproportionately impacts marginalized individuals in terms of gender, race, and socio-economic status. She is the author of the flagship report Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online (with Becca Lewis, 2017); Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity and Self-Branding in the Social Media Age (Yale 2013); and co-editor of The Sage Handbook of Social Media (2017).

Becca Lewis

Becca Lewis researches the way online extremist groups manipulate media narratives and radicalize new members, thus having an outsized effect on politics. She writes a weekly briefing on current far-right extremist activities, and she is beginning to investigate the role of independent media influencers and micro-celebrities in the movement.

Caroline Jack

Caroline Jack (PhD, Cornell University) is a media historian and theorist whose research focuses on mediated persuasion and propaganda. In her role as Postdoctoral Scholar at Data & Society, she investigates how formal and informal groups create, narrate, and deploy mass and interactive media communications campaigns to rationalize and sustain their desired economic and social configurations. She uses archival and textual-analytical methods, drawing theoretical orientation from the historiography of media and technology. Her projects include mass media campaign production histories and present-focused case studies of the institutions and infrastructures that scaffold persuasive campaigns.

Francesca Tripodi

Francesca Tripodi is a sociologist interested in the interaction between participatory media and community identity. Using ethnographic methods, she developed an analytical framework for understanding the ways in which communities use participatory media to perpetuate systems of inequality. Francesca’s goal is to utilize this framework for understanding how this applies to other platforms and community environments.

Mark Ackerman

Mark Ackerman studies how online work – both interaction work and labor work – gets done to cause political effects and causes disruptions to the platforms’ AIs.

Matt Goerzen

Matt Goerzen studies anonymous online communities, with particular reference to the ways they facilitate group identification and seek to influence both normative and regulatory systems through trolling, memetics, and mainstream media antagonism. He hopes to enhance understandings of: how far right political groups relate to these anonymous communities; the mechanisms they use to radicalize and mobilize their participants; the role of technical anonymity in subject formation at both individual and collective levels; and the attraction of memetic episteme. Ultimately, he is interested in how these tools and strategies can be used for productive social engagement, and what rubrics may be useful to measure that productivity.

Robyn Caplan

Robyn Caplan is a media and information policy scholar studying how media policy is interacting with data governance. She uses theories from science and technology studies and neo-institutional theory to examine how values and goals are transported through technologies like algorithms and data schemas into the logic of organizations (and vice versa). Most recently, she applies this work to media policy and the analysis of news media content classification guidelines being proposed by search engines and social media, as well as media industry groups, and civil society organizations, in the fight against disinformation and ‘fake news.’

Whitney Phillips

Whitney Phillips is a digital media folklorist who has spent a decade exploring trolling, hate and misogyny online, online ethics, and folkloric ambivalence across media. She is the author of two books: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, an ethnography of early trolling subculture, and The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, which applies a folkloric lens to online participation. She is currently working on an ethnographic research project focused on emerging journalism practices, and in future work will continue investigating the ambivalent relationship between individuals and the folkloric collectives they navigate.

Jeanna Neefe Matthews

Jeanna Neefe Matthews is a computer science professor at Clarkson University and a Fellow at Data and Society for 2017-18. She has done a wide variety of work in computer systems including virtualization and cloud security. She is also the co-chair of the US-ACM subcommittee on algorithmic transparency and accountability.

Rishab Nithyanand

Rishab Nithyanand is a Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellow at Data & Society. His interests lie in quantitatively analyzing how political opinion manipulation occurs and how political discourse has evolved on online social platforms.

Pete Krafft

Pete Krafft studies the structure and dissemination of information, misinformation, and disinformation. His research combines modeling, laboratory experimentation, and observational data analysis. A project he is involved with at Data & Society in this vein investigates rumors that were propagating during and immediately after the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally.

Lauren Hanson

Lauren Hanson is a research analyst with experience using social science techniques to study the ways that media and social media ecosystems support social change. Currently, she is studying the ways the algorithms and data affect media platforms and accountability to social values. She aspires to more thoroughly understand governance issues around algorithms and how information helps individuals make decisions.

Patrick Davison

Patrick Davison is a doctoral candidate at NYU. His dissertation research is about the long history of American social media. Before becoming an academic, he spent his time doing independent research about internet memes.