danah boyd Discusses the Spread of Hate Online

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on August 20, 2019


You take any sort of misinformation or even doubt, which is actually the most powerful, you start asking questions. Your question or your proposed alternative fact can reach millions of people if you stage it right. You can do it at one level by purchasing advertisements that anybody can access; another level by figuring out how to produce viral media; even more powerfully figuring out how to get journalists to tell your story or ask your question by engaging with them on Twitter. Anyone in the world has the ability to learn a set of techniques and amplify in a hypernetwork media ecosystem.
- danah boyd on PBS’ Amanpour & Company


Are media companies responsible for the escalation of hate speech? Can social sites like Twitter and Facebook be held accountable for the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories?


In a recent interview on PBS’ Amanpour & Company, danah boyd, Principal Researcher with Microsoft Research and the Data & Society Founder, discussed media manipulation and data voids. Below are a few transcribed excerpts from “Danah Boyd on the Spread of Conspiracies and Hate Online”:


The Study of Ignorance


A group of scholars and the term is coined by Robert Proctor and Iain Boal — coined a term call called agnotology, which is the study of ignorance. The idea is that ignorance is not just what we don’t yet know, ignorance is sometimes actively seated. It’s put out there to achieve a particular agenda. And what they were looking at was climate denial. That all of these coordinated efforts to create fake science, to create doubt about climate – or to create doubt about vaccines or to create doubt about the relationship between tobacco and cancer. And that of course is a political agenda that we’ve seen different governments use a tactic of propaganda for a long time.


It’s a lot easier to ask questions of doubt than it is to actually try to provide alternative facts. So you say well, maybe we don’t yet know why that plane came down. Maybe we don’t yet know what happened then in that election. And that seeding of doubt is so powerful because what it also motivates is for the public then to go and self-investigate, to go see if there’s something real. So think about Pizzagate. Right. By having news rooms all around the country talking about Pizzagate as a conspiracy, people who don’t trust the news media felt the need to go and self-investigate. So what do they do, they turn to Google. And what do they find, conspiracy all the way down until we got to a point where people started visiting that pizza shop. And as we know, one of them showed up with a gun. That’s a moment where the amplification and the desire to self-investigate is the act of achieving ignorance in a coordinated and systematic way. And the question is always who’s doing it, why, and why are news amplifiers; including both formal news as well as social media platforms, why are they helping amplify content that is designed intentionally to fragment knowledge.


Duty Bound to Shareholders


The platforms have amplified everything and that’s what we really need to acknowledge is that they are the amplifiers and the escalators. They have taken the good, bad, and ugly and taken it to a whole new level. The question is are we trying to get them back to a point where they’re just amplifying status quo or what kind of intervention are we asking them to make? Depending on where you stand politically, you’re going to have a different view on what role you want them to have in society. But at the end of the day, they’re not public institutions. They are private corporations. Is the responsibility of the tech platforms to give its users what they want in the moment; is their responsibility to their advertisers, which means, tricking their users to stay on platform as much as possible? Do they have to give their shareholders more value? Or is their responsibility to public citizenry? If so, we have to have a very intense conversation about how to restructure companies to have a double bottom line because right now they have a single bottom line, and that bottom line is Wall Street.


Data can be used in some of the most beneficial ways possible. It can also be used in some of most egregiously abusive way possible. And advertising is somewhere in between. What’s difficult is how do we create an echo system that makes certain that data is used to benefit individuals in society to the best they can. …


A company like Facebook has three choices; they can find more users, I’m not sure how well that’s going to go. They can find ways to make more per user, which means more time on site. It means more advertisements on the page. It means different ways of trying to get you to spend more money. Or they can diversify their profit-loss structures. In other words, diversify their products. And they certainly are trying as are many of the other companies. But none of those are about a sustained and stable information ecosystem for the public. All of those come down to ways of pulling more data from more people over more time or just asking for their money directly. And that’s why I say that in an information ecosystem, when the expectation is that you have to make more money every quarter on quarter, I don’t see anything but a long term devastation. It’s just matter of when we will say enough and what it will mean to say enough.


And the same I would argue is true with the news media. It is hard to produce the news when you’re supposed to turn profits every quarter; not just be stably profitable but to return more profit over quarter by quarter. It also gets more dicey into like what will get you more viewers. What will get you a broader reach rather than thinking about what it means to do sustainability.


Watch the full interview with Dr. boyd and read the full segment’s transcript on PBS’ Amanpour & Company site: “Danah Boyd on the Spread of Conspiracies and Hate Online”.



danah boyd is a Principal Researcher with Microsoft Research and Founder of the Data & Society. Among its many initiatives, Data & Society is focusing on media manipulation. “The Media Manipulation initiative works to provide news organizations, civil society, platforms, and policymakers with insights into new forms of media manipulation to ensure a close and informed relationship between technical research and socio-political outcomes.”