reportMay 22 2018

The Oxygen of Amplification

Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists, Antagonists, and Manipulators

Whitney Phillips

The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists, Antagonists, and Manipulators Online draws on in-depth interviews by scholar Whitney Phillips to showcase how news media was hijacked from 2016 to 2018 to amplify the messages of hate groups.

Offering extremely candid comments from mainstream journalists, the report provides a snapshot of an industry caught between the pressure to deliver page views, the impulse to cover manipulators and “trolls,” and the disgust (expressed in interviewees’ own words) of accidentally propagating extremist ideology.

After reviewing common methods of “information laundering” of radical and racist messages through the press, Phillips uses journalists’ own words to propose a set of editorial “better practices” intended to reduce manipulation and harm.

As social and digital media are leveraged to reconfigure the information landscape, Phillips argues that this new domain requires journalists to take what they know about abuses of power and media manipulation in traditional information ecosystems; and apply and adapt that knowledge to networked actors, such as white nationalist networks online.

This work is the first practitioner-focused report from Data & Society’s Media Manipulation Initiative, which examines how groups use the participatory culture of the internet to turn the strengths of a free society into vulnerabilities.


The Oxygen of Amplification has three interlocking parts:

Part 1 provides a historical overview of the relationship between the news media and far-right manipulators who leveraged trolling and meme culture during the 2016 US presidential election.

Part 2 identifies the consequences of reporting on bigoted, damaging, or otherwise problematic information and the structural limitations of journalism (economic, labor, and cultural) that exacerbate these tensions.

Part 3 is a tactical guide for newsrooms that recommends “better” practices on establishing newsworthiness; handling objectively false information; covering specific online harassment campaigns or manipulators, bigots, and abusers.

Resources for newsrooms in The Oxygen of Amplification:

Tips for Reporting on Objectively False Information (Part 3, Page 6) provides guidelines for when to cover hoaxes or “dis-, mis-, and mal-information.”

Tips for Reporting on Specific Harassment Campaigns or Other Coordinated Attacks (Part 3, Page 9) reinforces the concept that violent antagonisms are inherently contagious and underscores the potential harms of reporting on primary and secondary victims without great care.

Tips for Reporting on Specific Bigots, Manipulators, and Abusers (Part 3, Page 14) underscores common risks of engaging with manipulators, from falling for preemptively seeded information (“source hacking”) to amplifying dog whistles.

General Tips for Reporting on the Internet (Part 3, Page 18) advises that reporters stop using social media content as “person on the street” quotes and instead engage with sources face-to-face if possible.

About the Author

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 This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture (MIT Press, 2015), an ethnography of early trolling subculture, and co-author of The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Polity, 2017), 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.

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