Working on some visuals to help explain the dynamics of “participatory disinformation” and how that motivated the January 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol. Image
Let’s start from the beginning. We have “elites”, including elected political leaders, political pundits and partisan media outlets, as well as social media influencers who have used disinformation and other tactics to gain reputation and grow large audiences online. Image
We also have their audiences — the social media users and cable news watchers who tune into — and engage with — their content.
During the lead-up to — and for several months after — the 2020 election, political elites on the “right” (Trump supporters) repeatedly spread the message of a rigged election. This set an expectation of voter fraud and became a “frame” through which events were interpreted. Image
An example of one of those messages is this one, from realDonaldTrump, in June 2020: Image
With their perspective on the world shaped by this frame, the online “crowds” generated false/misleading stories of voter fraud, echoing & reinforcing the frame. Sometimes these stories were produced intentionally, but often they were generated sincerely, misinterpreted. Image
We see this w/ the #SharpieGate narrative, as people were initially concerned about Sharpie pens bleeding through (which would not have affected their votes in most cases), and later became convinced that the pens had been an intentional effort to disenfranchise Trump voters.
“Grassroots” activists and social media influencers helped amplify these stories, passing the content up to the political elites. Some intentionally attempt to “trade up” their content to reach larger influencers (w/ bigger audiences). Image
Political elites then echo the false/misleading stories back to their audiences, reinforcing the frame, and building a sense of collective grievance.
Shared grievance is a powerful political force. It can activate people to vote — and to take other political action in the world. Image
Audiences echo and reiterate this growing sense of grievance. Violent language and calls to action increase. Image
Political elites began to mobilize and organize the audiences into a series of rallies and protests (under the #StopTheSteal hashtag which began on Election Day and began to encompass a number of false and misleading narratives about voter fraud). Image
And on January 6, the protests — motivated by this participatory disinformation dynamic — turned violent, in an attempt (by people who, at least in part, falsely believed they were patriots defending their country from a stolen election).
Participatory disinformation makes for a powerful dynamic. These tight feedback loops between “elites” and their audiences (facilitated by social media) seem to make the system more responsive — and possibly more powerful and unwieldy.
Responding to a comment here, one aspect of this dynamic is that it can produce new “elites” who manage to use the system to gain reputation (and followers).
My understanding of the dynamics of online misinfo & populist political movements is informed by Ong & Cabañes work on “networked disinformation” in the Philippines. (My class read that paper this week.) Seems to apply to many contexts around the world. scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewconten…
A sparse view of the retweet network of "Stop the Steal” tweets (edges = 10 RTs by one account of another), so only shows common trajectories of information flow gives a sense of who the “elites” where in this discourse (on Twitter, they may differ on FB and elsewhere). Image
These graphs can be misleading, so a little context. This shows a three part structure. The top includes the now suspended account of former Pres. Trump as well as many of the organizers of the Stop the Steal movement. (Zooming into the top.) Image
Bottom section is a second component that we often see in network graphs of US right-wing discourse. It’s a lot of “grassroots” activist accounts (a bit of astroturf as well) that have build connections over years thru follow-backs and other techniques — and often RT each other.
If we lower the RT threshold on for the edges (to 3 retweets) we can see the larger audiences cluster around the influencers and, to a lesser extent, spread around the second network component as well. Image
A visual explanation of the dynamics of “participatory disinformation” and how they motivated the January 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol. [Fixed the missing arrows on the left and updated my affiliation on the original slide.] Image
Elise Stefanik has used her participation in “The Big Lie” to enhance her reputation and power in the pro-Trump section of the GOP. Imagine her as one of those red bubbles rising along the left side through these participatory disinformation dynamics.
GOP hopefuls have a hard choice to make, whether to defend our country against pervasive disinformation that erodes democratic institutions (indeed, our very trust in the elections that define democratic governance), or jump in & benefit from these participatory disinfo dynamics.

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More from @katestarbird

21 Nov
Amazon is playing an under-scrutinized role in the spread of harmful misinfo. Historically, books (and movies) would have been curated by a store or library. Fringe content would have been hard to find. Now, algorithms are feeding people absolute BS from the “front” of the store.
It’s not “just” the algorithms, of course. People are also intentionally gaming these systems to push their products (or others’ products that align w/ their ideologies). And, at the end of the day, there are human vulnerabilities that resonate w/ the toxicities of these systems.
But imagine a world before online bookstores… and consider where this book would have been in most physical stores… and how far it would have stayed from any best seller list (and display).
Read 4 tweets
4 Oct
On Oct 4 1991, my wife received the news that she was “positive”. Today, she became a 30-year survivor of HIV/AIDS. I’m so proud of her and lucky to have her in my life. Today, we celebrate her strength and reflect on the trauma, stigma, and all of those we’ve lost along the way.
Her first doctor told her that she wouldn’t live to see her 25th birthday. She turns 50 this year.
As a 30-year survivor of HIV, she has a complicated relationship with “big pharma”. One reason she survived is that she refused to take AZT early on. She watched as her friends, one after another, got well for a bit, but then rapidly declined.
Read 9 tweets
13 Sep
Instead of holding high profile superspreaders of problematic content accountable (and giving their hyper-visible content more scrutiny), FB has been protecting them: wsj.com/articles/faceb…
From the WSJ: "Facebook recognized years ago that the enforcement exemptions granted by its XCheck system were unacceptable, with protections sometimes granted to what it called abusive accounts and persistent violators of the rules, the documents show."
WSJ: "FB has asked fact-checking partners to retroactively change their findings on posts from high-profile accounts, waived standard punishments for propagating what it classifies as misinformation and even altered planned changes to its algorithms to avoid political fallout."
Read 4 tweets
10 Sep
As one of the research teams working on this data… this isn’t the first error in the data, but this one is egregious. How do we build research on top of these opaque data — having lost trust in their curation?
We’re currently working on our final paper and report. The original student has long since graduated (due to delays in accessing the data to begin with). Do we re-run the analyses and rewrite the paper (after our funding has run out)? Or just return a blank PDF?
I’m worried about having the student waste time with another analysis that isn’t publishable because we can’t trust the data underneath. But there’s so much work already invested. Ugh.
Read 4 tweets
28 Aug
Received a letter from <loved one> this week. Two pages. Emailed as a “pages” document. Referencing more conspiracy theories than one could count (because they’re all so intertwined). Read like a manifesto. Last week he asked if we <his relatives> need advice for buying guns. :(
Manifesto included: Biden…senile…his handlers…a cabal of Marxists from Chicago/DC…globalist…Covid-infected immigrants…mandating CRT…defunding police…Deep-State collusion…stolen election. And that’s just page 1, BEFORE he gets into the China stuff.
Fortunately, he’s not mobile, so we’re not worried about violence. But jeez, this toxic propaganda is pervasive. No way to unwind all that.
Read 4 tweets
8 Aug
This is my grandfather’s (Alfred Dodd Starbird's) team sweater and running singlet from the 1936 Olympics. He finished 7th in the Modern Pentathlon. A German won gold, but the U.S. team would have won the team competition (finishing 2nd, 7th, 9th). Image
I learned today that the events of the Modern Pentathlon (running, swimming, fencing, pistol, equestrian) were chosen to simulate the feats of a 19th century cavalry solider fighting behind enemy lines.
A few years ago, when my parents had to move to an elder living facility, I inherited a box of family memorabilia. I found these shirts inside that box, in a plastic bag which hadn’t managed to protect them completely from the moths. My wife helped me clean them up & frame them.
Read 20 tweets

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