Joan Donovan researches how disinformation campaigns spread among far-right groups, on the web. Donovan spoke to Nieman Fellows in October 2023 about her areas of expertise.

Joan Donovan researches how disinformation campaigns spread among far-right groups, on the web. Donovan spoke to Nieman Fellows in October 2023 about her areas of expertise.

As one of the world’s leading experts on media manipulation and disinformation, Joan Donovan studies the darker side of the internet — online threats, conspiracy theories, extremist rhetoric, to name just a few examples. Donovan is an assistant professor of Journalism and Emerging Media Studies in the College of Communications at Boston University. Her book, “Meme Wars: The Untold Story of Online Battles Upending Democracy in America,” co-written with Emily Dreyfuss and Brian Friedberg, examines how the far right has pushed conspiracy theories into mainstream American discourse. 

Donovan spoke to Nieman Fellows in October 2023 about journalism’s role in combatting disinformation, navigating today’s unmoderated and hyper-polarized internet, and how media outlets can adapt to our current digital age. Edited excerpts:

On cyberattacks, cyber troops, and manipulating public sentiment 

According to a study by the Oxford internet Institute on cyber troops in 2020, cyber troops are government or political party actors tasked with manipulating public opinion online. Eighty-one countries use cyber troops, which is different from hacking or other forms of cyber warfare to directly attack opponents or infrastructure.

Cyber troops use social media and the internet as it’s designed while employing social engineering techniques like impersonation, bots, and what we might call growth hacking. They spend millions on online advertising. Disinformation is incredibly profitable for platform companies. The less money they can spend on content moderation, the more money they’re going to make in advertising.

This report also noted that Iran attacked Palestine on Facebook and Israel on Twitter in 2020. What we know from intelligence happening over the last couple of days, Iran has a very particular stake in the outcome of this war.

[I’m] not surprised to find evidence that they had been attacking both Palestine and Israel in the past. Their choice of platform matters in the sense of, which platforms are currently blocked in certain areas, which kinds of audiences are they trying to persuade? They might be attacking Palestine, but for the purpose of manipulating U.S. sentiment.

Craig Silverman wrote a great report for ProPublica in 2022 about fact checks being weaponized by Russia at the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

Manipulated videos, trolling and brigading, evidence collages — that is all different kinds of media put together to convince you of a thing. Hijacked accounts, and then what we might call hollow sourcing, which is uncorroborated and anonymous sourcing —all of these things are playing out online. It’s really hard to know the difference between who is a cyber troop, who’s someone that’s shit posting, who’s someone that’s really there and really traumatized because it’s all happening in the same place, on the same networks.

Can AI help reporters combat misinformation and disinformation?

I can’t tell you what [AI] is, but I can tell you what it’s not, which is essentially a reporter. Truth needs an advocate, but truth is a human process. We don’t arrive at the truth because we stumble upon it, we don’t arrive at the truth by collating words and then predicting what the next word is going to be. That’s how AI makes sentences. It makes sentences that are common sentences, because it tries to predict things based on commonality.

What can AI help you do? It can help you write a letter of resignation, I’ll tell you that much.

It can help you with menial tasks like that. I got to write another recommendation letter for another person? “So and so is such a great blah, blah, blah.”

My hope for AI is that it does what the internet could have done in the beginning, which has become this vastly decentralized web of local sites.

I’m hoping that AI can help us distribute and build search engines that allow us to bring timely, accurate local knowledge to the forefront. 

How might that look? It might be an AI bot that scans Facebook groups by location and pulls out different nuggets of information that might be worth interviewing someone about that says, “I went to city council last night, and so and so said this. They’re going to build a mall where there used to be a different mall.”

AI could help us localize information and localized search so that we don’t just get national stories and national news. It’s such a feeble technology. It’s so flimsy that I have been told by people that work with AI in their newsrooms and in other places, they spend more time correcting what comes out of it than they do getting gainful upswing.

On the future of legacy media 

Institutions are like baseball teams. They have good years, they have bad years. They have good management years, they have bad management years. They live and die by that praxis.

Institutional longevity is not guaranteed. Money can’t buy you out of certain kinds of conflict, as Kanye West has figured out. What are the major conflicts that you can’t really buy yourself out of? We don’t know yet. When it comes to legacy media organizations, they’re really failing to adapt.

Even Fox News missed the boat when OAN and Right Side Broadcasting and other online quasi cable came in, because what those news organizations do is they say, “No one on Earth is listening to us. We’re so all on our own here. We need you as the audience to publish us and to distribute our stuff. We’re the victims of mainstream media.”

What do people do? They go and they engage online and they distribute that stuff. Fox News lost that stranglehold that they had because they didn’t tow the line in 2020 when they needed to. It’s almost like, for a second, they forgot their identity and really thought they were news, and now they’re back to their old shenanigans.

The funny thing is, legacy media hates social media and they hate that journalists use social media. They want all of their journalists to just shut up and stop posting online. It’s to their detriment to not allow their journalists to engage on social media in the way that they could be.

I sometimes see the best reporters get burned out trying to change the culture at really prestigious newsrooms. I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to someone that’s come out of The New York Times just feeling bruised, battered, and burned out.

I always hold out hope that people will become smarter than their oppressor. You have to do that as a matter of survival. Information is survival in many ways. It’s how we bring generations together. It’s how we remember our past. It’s how we avoid the mistakes of our ancestors. It’s how we create remembrance.

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