A Review of ‘Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online’

This was previously posted on the AACE Review by Sandra Rogers.

Digital screen with green code on black background
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

In Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online, Marwick and Lewis (2017) of the Data & Society Research Institute described the agents of media manipulation, their modus operandi, motivators, and how they’ve taken advantage of the vulnerability of online media. The researchers described the manipulators as right-wing extremists (RWE), also known as alt-right, who run the gamut from sexists (including male sexual conquest communities) to white nationalists to anti-immigration activists and even those who rebuke RWE identification but whose actions confer such classification.

These manipulators rally behind a shared belief on online forums, blogs, podcasts, and social media through pranks or ruinous trolling anonymity, usurping participatory culture methods (networking, humor, mentorship) for harassment, and competitive cyber brigades that earn status by escalating bullying such as the sharing of a target’s private information. The researchers proposed that the use of the more digestible term of alt-right to convey the collective agenda of misogynists, racists, and fascists propelled their causes into the mainstream discourse through various media streams. Therefore, I’ll use the term RWE instead.


The Internet provides a shared space for good and evil. Subcultures such as white nationalists can converge with other anti-establishment doers on an international scale thanks to the connected world we live in. Marwick and Lewis reported on how RWE groups have taken advantage of certain media tactics to gain viewers’ attention such as novelty and sensationalism, as well as their interactions with the public via social media, to manipulate it for their agenda. For instance, YouTube provides any individual with a portal and potential revenue to contribute to the media ecosystem. The researchers shared the example of the use of YouTube by conspiracy theorists, which can be used as fodder for extremist networks as conspiracies generally focus on the loss of control of important ideals, health, and safety.

The more outrageous conspiracies get picked up by the media for their viewers, and in doing so, are partly to blame for their proliferation. In the case study provided with this article, The White Student Union, an influencer successfully sought moral outrage as a publicity stunt. Why isn’t the media more astute about this? “The mainstream media’s predilection for sensationalism, need for constant novelty, and emphasis on profits over civic responsibility made them vulnerable to strategic manipulation (p. 47) (Marwick & Lewis, 2017).”


Marwick and Lewis shared how certain RWE influencers gained prominence based on their technological skills and manipulative tactics. One tactic they’re using is to package their hate in a way that appeals to millennials. They use attention hacking to increase their status such as hate speech, which is later recanted as trickster trolling all the while gaining the media’s attention for further propagation. Then there are the RWE so-called news outlets and blogs that promote a hyper-partisan agenda and falsehoods. These were successful in attention hacking the nation running up to the 2016 Presidential election at a scale that out-paced that of the regular news outlets on Facebook (Buzz Feed News, 2016). Are they unstoppable?

The researchers indicated that the only formidable enemy of alt-right media is the opposing factions within its fractured, yet shared hate, assemblage. Unfortunately, mainstream media’s reporting on political figures who engage in conspiracy theories, albeit noteworthy as to their mindset, raises it to the level of other important newsworthy of debate.  Berger and Luckmann (1966) referred to this as ‘reality maintenance’ through dialogue, reality-confirmation through interactions, ongoingly modified, and legitimized through certain conversations. The media needs to stop the amplification of RWE messages; otherwise, as Marwick and Lewis stated, it could gravely darken our democracy.


Marwick and Lewis reported the following shared tactics various RWE groups use for online exploits:

  • Ambiguity of persona or ideology,
  • Baiting a single or community target’s emotions,
  • Bots for amplification of propaganda that appears legitimately from a real person,
  • “…Embeddedness in Internet culture… (p. 28),”
  • Exploitation of young male rebelliousness,
  • Hate speech and offensive language (under the guise of First Amendment protections),
  • Irony to cloak ideology and/or skewer intended targets,
  • Memes for stickiness of propaganda,
  • Mentorship in argumentation, marketing strategies, and subversive literature in their communities of interest,
  • Networked and agile groups,
  • “…Permanent warfare… (p.12)” call to action,
  • Pseudo scholarship to deceive readers,
  • “…Quasi moral arguments… (p. 7)”
  • Shocking images for filtering network membership,
  • “Trading stories up the chain… (p. 38)” from low-level news outlets to mainstream, and
  • Trolling others with asocial behavior.

This is a frightful attempt at the social reconstruction of our reality, as the verbal and nonverbal language we use objectifies and rules the order (Berger and Luckmann, 1966).


According to Marwick and Lewis, media manipulators are motivated by pushing their ideological agendas, the joy of sowing chaos in the lives of targets, financial gain, and/or status. The RWE’s shared use of online venues to build a counter-narrative and to radicalize recruits is not going away any time soon. This was best explained in their article as, with the Internet, the usual media gatekeepers have been removed.

Some claimed their impetus was financial and not politically motivated such as the teenagers in Veles, Macedonia who profited around 16K dollars per month via Google’s AdSense from Facebook post engagements with their 100 fake news websites (Subramanian, 2017). “What Veles produced, though, was something more extreme still: an enterprise of cool, pure amorality, free not only of ideology but of any concern or feeling about the substance of the election (Subramanian, 2017).”  …Google eventually suspended the ads from these and other fake news sites. However, as reported in Dead Reckoning, new provocateurs will eventually figure out how to circumvent Google’s AdSense and other online companies’ gateways as soon as they develop new ones. This is because, as aforementioned, the RWE influencers are tech-savvy.


Marwick and Lewis acknowledged a long history of mistrust with mainstream media. However, the current distrust appears worse than ever. For example, youth reported having little faith in mainstream media (Madden, Lenhart & Fontaine, 2017). Republicans’ trust in the mainstream media was the lowest ever recorded by the Gallop Poll (Swift, 2016). Why has it worsened? They pinpointed The New York Times’ lack of evidence for various news articles on the Iraq War’s nuclear arsenal, as an example of long-lasting readership dismay. The researchers reported on how a lack of trust in the mainstream media has pushed viewers to watch alternative networks instead. Moreover, the right-wing extremists’ manipulation of the media demonstrates the media’s weakness, which in turn sows mistrust. Marwick and Lewis acknowledged that the RWE subculture has been around the Internet for decades and will continue to thrive off the mainstream media’s need for novelty and sensationalism if allowed. I, for one, appreciate what Data & Society is doing to shed light on the spread of fake news and hatemongers’ agendas on the Internet.

Instructional Material

If you’re a college instructor of communications or teach digital literacy as a librarian, see the corresponding syllabus for this article. It provides discussion questions and assignments for teaching students about media manipulation. To teach your students how to combat fake news online, see my other AACE Review post on Navigating Post-Truth Societies: Strategies, Resources, and Technologies.


Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Madden, M. Lenhart, A., & Fontaine, C. (February 2017). How youth navigate the news landscape. Retrieved from https://kf-siteproduction.s3.amazonaws.com/publications/pdfs/000/000/230/original/Youth_News.pdf

Marwick, A. & Lewis, R. (2017). Media manipulation and disinformation online. Retrieved from https://datasociety.net/pubs/oh/DataAndSociety_MediaManipulationAndDisinformationOnline.pdf

Subramanian, S. (February 2017). Inside the Macedonian fake-news complex. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2017/02/veles-macedonia-fake-news/

Swift, A. (2016). Americans trust in mass media sinks to new low. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/195542/americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-new-low.aspx

Sandra Annette Rogers, Ph.D.

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Understanding A Learner’s Misunderstanding

Fish and fish-like animals and people
Fish is Fish, written & illustrated by Leo Lionni (1970); Published by Penguin Random House

In Fish is Fish ©, Lionni tells the story of two friends, a fish and a tadpole, who grow up together in a pond. When the tadpole becomes a frog, he’s able to hop out of the pond and discover land.  Upon return, he describes to the fish the wondrous things he has seen. The fish imagines these things based on his prior knowledge and understanding of the world.  Hence, birds are fish with wings, cows are fish with udders, and people are fish in clothing, and so forth. With an inability to imagine a very different reality, the fish simply superimposes the new on the old.

This story illustrates the impact of a learner’s prior knowledge on new information. Generally, the learner is unaware of their misunderstandings. Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) found a solid research base to support tapping into a learner’s prior knowledge. Learners’ preconceived notions remain unchanged if their initial understanding is not engaged by the instructor.  In fact, even if students learn new information about a concept for a test, they may still revert to their original understanding when transferring it to real world applications. For example, in a 1983 study by Wandersee, students’ prior knowledge on animal food needs biased their understanding of the primary source of food in green plants.  Elementary and college students held the misconception that soil was the plants’ food even though many had received instruction on photosynthesis. Bransford et al. suggested that educators find ways to make a learner’s thinking visible in order to address these misconceptions.

Second, a learner’s belief system is tied to their experiences and culture. Sometimes in order to make sense of something new, one needs to see it associated to something known within their culture. Bransford et al. give the example of storytelling, which is an important component of some cultures. This can be associated with the language arts curriculum as a skill. An educator needs to have an understanding of the learners’ cultural background to aid sense-making. Generally, second language educators understand the importance of valuing a learner’s cultural background. Their specific training on the nature of language (linguistics) describes how culture is inextricably tied to language. Therefore, it’s important to use many examples and nonexamples in teaching new concepts. These should be open for discussion to allow learners to make connections to their understandings. In this way, the student introduces their own culture versus the good-willed but misinformed teachers’ understanding of culture not her own.

Third, it’s important to understand the economic, physical, political, linguistic, ethno-cultural, and social environmental barriers to learning new concepts. In my opinion, the fish-is-fish phenomenon occurs with learners whose systems include one or a combination of the following: monolingualism, racial homogeneity, geographic isolation, closed systems (those that exist without need from outside systems), economic hardships, and political isolation. This list is only cursory.

I  encountered various environmental barriers when using food to discuss nutrition in the elementary classroom in East Los Angeles. A school grant provided fresh fruits and vegetables with nutrition lessons weekly to a classroom. The day I introduced blueberries became more of a discussion on the fruit than on its nutritional values. The high cost of this fruit, coupled with it not being a part of the ethnic foods generally sold or purchased in the area, made blueberries an oddity. As one can imagine, students were more interested in tasting it than hearing about it. How could I appropriately describe the taste of a blueberry to someone who has never eaten one? The nutrition program’s lesson time frame for eating the fruit was generally on day three; of course, I didn’t stick to the plan. However, in some instances, the fruit was shipped still green, so that it would ripen according to the right day of the lesson plan.

Sandra Rogers, PhD

P.S. I received permission from Random House to use this copyrighted illustration for this single blog post!

Synopsis: Knowledge Management and Learning

Organizational development books on a shelf
My Bookshelf


Note: This is part IV in a series on instructional design articles.

Rosenberg, M. J. (2012). Knowledge management and learning: Perfect together. In R.A. Reiser & J.V. Dempsey (Eds.) Trends & issues in instructional design & technology (3rd ed.). (pp. 158-168). Boston: Allyn & Bacon Pearson Education.

According to Rosenberg, knowledge management (KM) is an examination of the boundaries of our practice. It affects everything everywhere. He claimed that KM was revolutionary, but in my humble opinion, I think it deals with being organized, proactive, and thinking outside the box. There are four types of knowledge: explicit (you can explain), tacit (you can access it), common or organizational, and undiscovered. Undiscovered knowledge refers to the hiccups or missteps in information that is not disseminated to the person in need. Also, it refers to knowledge that is not yet known but could greatly benefit an organization. Rosenberg gives the example of the product innovation that goes unnoticed. He stated that undiscovered knowledge is the most critical to an organization, and I strongly agree.

Knowledge can take many forms such as documents, presentations, collaboration, expertise, as well as technology. According to Rosenberg, instructional designers need to know how to identify, organize, and distribute knowledge content.  KM systems need to have these three components to be successful systems: codification (metadata), collaboration (buy-in and sharing of information), and access (user-friendly). These components need a comprehensive organizationwide database.  For example, at the center where I work, we have a shared drive to place our work into various folders of information to provide access to all staff and to store it.

Interestingly, I already held the idea of the critical importance of organizing data for an organization.  This is due in part to having held numerous jobs in different settings.  Each setting represented a new KM system of document storage and retrieval.  Oftentimes, it can be extremely confusing to a new member to find needed information at the right time.  Moreover, I agree that KM should be viewed as a performance support for blended learning.  By bringing in online tools, techniques, and content to the face-to-face (F2F) class, we provide information to supplement the content.  Conversely, we may also offer the option of F2F activities to supplement online courses.  All of this knowledge should be codified accordingly for easy access and management.