Researchers and UCI Professors Discuss Digital Media Manipulation

By Helena Chen-Carlson

The UCI Office of Inclusive Excellence invited Dr. Joan Donovan to discuss her work as a lead researcher on media manipulation at the Data & Society research institute in an event titled Digital Extremism: Confronting Digital Media Manipulation and Extremism last Thursday, April 5. The panel was joined by Informatics Professor and Associate Dean Paul Dourish and Anthropology Professor Tom Boellstorff who moderated the discussion.

At the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics, the focus of Donovan’s studies centered on how technology is used by social movements such as white supremacists’ in an effort to exploit technical, social and economic media structures as a way to drive particular social change and challenge existing social institutions.

Professor Boellstorff started off with basic questions in hopes of further building the conversation through dialogue. Donovan gave the audience an introduction of Data & Society, which based in New York. Much of their efforts are focused on raising and answering “deep” questions about how data in our digital world is used to influence society and impact “the way we conduct ourselves, the way that we collaborate, the way we think about institutions that way that we think about ourselves in institutions.”

Donovan was originally brought in to work with the Media and Manipulation Initiative at Data & Society. She points out that as most researchers in the audience would understand, media has some intention to either inform people or affect the way they think in some way.

“The forefront of what we’re studying is understanding how media is used to manipulate individuals and groups and also thinking about how does media factor into the way individuals and groups intentionally try to manipulate each other,” said Donovan.

Her team takes a “sociotechnical” approach to understanding behavior. This approach identifies and studies the interactions between societal infrastructures such as technology and human attitudes. An example can include studying the behavior of social communities including virtual white supremacist groups and how they use innovative ways to produce specific outcomes.

“In doing that kind of research we end up hanging out in a lot of spaces on the internet that are unmoderated and unregulated.”

What comes after research is informing journalists, platform companies, internet users and the general public about how groups are attempting to manipulate media and into influencing society. The research is presented so as to set off dialogue on thinking about the severity of manipulation and its consequences as well as thinking about what the state should and should not be regulating.

In light of recent news, a recurring topic during the panel was the discovery of Cambridge Analytica’s use of personal data in relation to Facebook. Professor and Associate Dean Paul Dourish pointed out that the Cambridge Analytica moment is a “really useful and teachable moment in many dimensions,” because it raises questions about the capacity of Cambridge Analytica to be able to not only gather data, but act upon that data. One of the things he points out at the Data & Society that is so valuable is it “looks at the bigger picture but recognizes that one needs to be technologically sophisticated and be able to read these technologies and determine what they are and are not doing as part of a larger media ecology.”

According to Donovan, the data Facebook has admitted to disclosing with companies like Cambridge Analytica (about 87 million so far) was being used to target where users lived and their political affiliations.

“They were federating and combining that data with the republican party’s data around voter registration and who lives where. So they could actually figure out where you lived according to your profile and then microtarget you with very specific advertising,” said Donovan.

One of the targeted advertisements was for a group titled Secure America Now which published a video claiming that France was overrun with muslims and had lost its national identity. The second set of advertising was pushed through Cambridge Analytica and called Make America Number 1.

Donovan said that much of the advertising was not as much pro-Trump as it was anti-Clinton and anti-government. When people talk about ‘voter suppression’, what typically comes to mind is that voters are physically prevented from getting to the poles, when in reality, what they were signalling was voter suppression online which had a goal of convincing people that participation itself was the problem.

The panel lasted an hour and was followed by opening the floor to the audience for questions and comments which Donovan and Dourish addressed. Overall, Donovan emphasized that it is important for researchers to begin to “recalibrate” their methods on understanding human behavior and engagement, and on how what she calls “online real-life” plays into real-world decisions.