We all know the media ecosystem has been changing rapidly, with media scholars scrambling to understand how and where things are headed. “Fake news” and “post-truth” are the glib catchwords of the day; “filter bubbles,” “echo chambers,” “ideological segregation,” “information cascades,” “algorithmic filtering” (along with the all-encompassing “Algoricene“), and “meme magic” are among the more, or less, helpful technical terms being proposed. Exactly when the post-truth era began is harder to pinpoint — as is the point at which “fake news” becomes (real) “information war.”
An interesting forthcoming article by University of Washington researcher Kate Starbird examines the “alternative media ecosystem” by focusing on the production of the kinds of narratives that are fairly exclusive to the “alternative,” as opposed to mainstream, “media ecosystem.” Specifically, the piece analyzes conspiratorial narratives, found on Twitter and connected web sites, that follow terrorist incidents (including the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings and the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17) and several mass shooting events.
“For each event,” Starbird writes, “rumors claimed the event had been perpetrated by someone other than the official suspects—that it was instead either a staged event performed by “crisis actors” or a “false flag” orchestrated by someone else.” (For more, see the Seattle Times and Starbird’s own summaries of the research.)
From Starbird’s scholarly article:
“After several rounds of iterative analysis to identify commonalities and distinctions across clusters of accounts, we identified three prominent political agendas: U.S. Alt Right, U.S. Alt-Left, and International Anti-Globalist.”
The Alt-Left was a minority persuasion overlapping with the others, but less integrated with the others. In this, the article supports other recent research suggesting that it’s the Alt-Right mediasphere that is least well connected with mainstream media — that is, that far-right media are most unhinged from what’s considered reality by the rest of the world. (On that, see here, here, and here.)
But the “Anti-Globalist” piece in this article is interesting and somewhat novel. It also raises new questions, since the term itself could be better parsed than it is in the article.
“[A]lmost all [of the Twitter domains analyzed] focused on anti-globalist themes, highly critical of the U.S. and other Western governments and their role around the world. Additionally, content supporting Russian government interests was present across a majority of these domains.”
Anti-globalism comes in many shapes and sizes, and too often the term obscures the differences between critiques of neoliberal economic globalism — which presume a globalism (or “alter-globalism”) as the solution to another globalism (neoliberalism) — and critiques of westernization, modernization, American hegemony (or imperialism), liberalism, and so on.
Starbird’s conclusion discusses a “crippled epistemology” that “may be exacerbated by the false perception of having a seemingly diverse information diet that is instead drawn from a limited number of sources.” In other words, the conspiracy theories emerge from a limited number of original sources, but the social media networks amplify and multiply them to make them appear more credible.
A good place to start talking about these things with students is Katherine Schulten and Amanda Christy Brown’s New York Times “lesson plan.”