Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Examining the Alternative Media Ecosystem using Twitter

In the aftermath of major political disruptions in 2016—in Britain with the Brexit vote and in the United States with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency—there has been widespread attention to and theorizing about the problem of “fake news”. But this term is both amorphous and contested. One perspective locates the problem within the emerging ecosystem of alternative media, where the term has been applied to refer to “clickbait” content that uses tabloid-style headlines to attract viewers for financial reasons (Silverman & Alexander 2016) and to describe political propaganda intentionally planted and propagated through online spaces (Timberg 2016). Challenging these definitions, alternative media outlets have appropriated the term to attack “mainstream” media for its perceived economic and political biases and for hosting inaccurate or under-sourced content (e.g. Rappoport 2016). Beneath this rhetoric, we are seeing traditional new providers and emergent alternative media battle not only for economic viability, but over accepted methods of how information is shared and consumed, and, more profoundly, for how narratives around that information are shaped and by whom.

This research seeks to provide a systematic lens for exploring the production of a certain type of “fake news”— alternative narratives of man-made crisis events. For three years, our research group has examined online rumoring during crises. Over that time, we noted the presence of very similar rumors across many man-made crisis events— including the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings, the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, and several mass shooting events including those at Umpqua Community College in Oregon (October, 2015). For each event, rumors claimed the event had been perpetrated by someone other than the official suspects—that it was instead either a staged event performed by “crisis actors” or a “false flag” orchestrated by someone else. Both explanations claimed that a powerful individual or group was pulling the strings for political reasons. Interestingly, though the arguments and evidence used to support these alternative narratives were somewhat consistent across events, the motives cited were often very different—e.g. from the U.S. government trying to support gun control to coordinated global actors staging violence to motivate military intervention.

For this paper, we utilize this type of conspiracy theory or alternative narrative rumor as an entry point for understanding the ecosystem of alternative media. We examine the production of these narratives through Twitter and across the external websites that Twitter users reference as they engage in these narratives. We propose and demonstrate that this lens—Twitter data from mass shooting events and our method for utilizing that data to reveal and explore connections across web domains—provides a systematic approach for shedding light on the emerging phenomena of alternative media and “fake news”.

Our contributions include an increased understanding of the underlying nature of this subsection of alternative media—which hosts conspiratorial content and conducts various anti-globalist political agendas. Noting thematic convergence across domains, we theorize about how alternative media may contribute to conspiratorial thinking by creating a false perception of information diversity……

We collected tweets related to shooting events for more than ten months in 2016. This time period included several high profile shooting events, including mass shootings with civilian casualties at an Orlando, FL nightclub on June 12, in a shopping district in Munich, Germany on July 22, and at a mall in Burlington, WA on September 23. Each of these events catalyzed considerable discussion online and elsewhere about the details and motives of the attack— including claims of the attack being a “false flag”.

More than half of our alternative narrative collection (30,361 tweets) relates to the Orlando event, including:

@ActivistPost: "Was Orlando Shooting A False Flag? Shooter Has Ties To FBI, Regular At Club, Did Not Act Alone? "

This tweet is typical of an alternative narrative tweet, leveraging uncertainty in the form of a leading question (Starbird et al. 2016) to present its theory. The linked-to article—whose title is the content of this tweet—presents evidence to support the theory, including facts about the case (such as previous contact between the FBI and the shooter) and perceived connections to past events that are similarly claimed to be false flags. The underlying theme here is that the U.S. government perpetrated the shooting with the intention of blaming it on Islamic terrorism. This tweet’s author, the ActivistPost, is associated with one of the central nodes in our network graph (see Figures 1-3), referenced in 191 tweets by 153 users and connected (by user activity) to a relatively high number of other domains.

The following tweet, by an account associated with a domain that has a strong edge tie with ActivistPost, forwards a similarly themed alternative narrative:

@veteranstoday: Orlando nightclub shooting: Yet another false flag? - looks like another PR extravaganza

This article was linked-to 147 times in our data. The tweet and the article feature an image with the title, “Omar Mateen: Patsy or MK Mind-Control Slave”. The term patsy is often used to label an accused perpetrator who has been framed for the incident by government or other powerful groups. MK Mind-Control refers to a CIA project that experimented with mind control in the 1950s. This speculative tweet and related article therefore present two potential explanations of the Orlando shooting event, both building off alternative narratives used in previous events. The underlying claim here is that the named suspect was not responsible for the Orlando shootings, but that the U.S. government was. This claim is extended in the article to apply to other violent acts attributed to Muslim terrorists.

Alternative narratives around the Munich shooting had a similar theme, though blame was pushed onto international geo-political actors: Desperate Zionists Commit Another Fraud with Munich Shooting Hoax - NODISINFO

The above tweet links to an article (tweeted 54 times) within the domain, one of the most highly tweeted and highly connected domains in our data. Citing photographic evidence from the scene, the article claims that the shooting was a drill, staged by crisis actors. All of these terms echo other alternative narratives of other events. Diverging from the Orlando narratives, which blame the U.S. government, in this case the accused “real” perpetrators are Zionists—echoing long-active narratives about covert power wielded by Jewish bankers and others. The article offers no evidence to support that connection other than reference to other “staged” events.

The Cascade Mall Shooting in Burlington, Washington referenced a third kind of alternative narrative that has appeared after many U.S.-based shootings, including the Sandy Hook School shooting in 2012 and the Umpqua School shooting in 2015. This narrative claims that these mass shooting events are again staged using crisis actors, but in this case by the left-leaning U.S. government to provide a political basis for reducing gun rights.

Absence Of Footage Of Wounded/Deceased Victims. Media Were Told Victims Remained In The Mall #Cascade #FalseFlag

This tweet suggests that there were no actual victims of the event. It links to an article on the domain, which also has a relatively high degree in our network graph and was tweeted 125 times. The linked-to article assembles evidence to make a case for the event being a drill and describes an outlook that connects several events to this narrative: “Such events are reported on by major news media uncritically, thus supporting the call for strengthened gun control measures. […]”

Interestingly, the second most highly referenced event in our alternative narrative collection from 2016 (at 5,914 tweets) is the Sandy Hook shootings, which occurred in 2012. Though a large portion of those tweets contest or deny that alternative narrative, several utilize Sandy Hook “evidence” to support alternative narratives around more recent events. For example:

Orlando shooting was a hoax. Just like Sandy Hook, Boston Bombing, and San Bernandino. Keep believing Rothschild Zionist news companies. More Orlando shooting Hoax – proof - same actors in Sandy hook & Boston Marathon Fake bombing - gun take away agenda.

These two tweets both connect the Orlando Shooting to claims that Sandy Hook was a hoax. In the first, the author refers to the “Rothschild Zionist news companies”, a reference to anti-globalist and anti-media viewpoints that appear as major themes across many alternative news sites. The second tweet connects Orlando to Sandy Hook (and paradoxically the Boston Marathon bombings) as part of an ongoing agenda to reduce gun rights in the U.S.

Taken together, these examples describe a few of what turns out to be a collection of distinct alternative narratives that share several common features. As the above tweets highlight at the micro-level, at the macro-level our domain data demonstrate that different alternative narratives are connected across users and sites—e.g. some users reference both (which assigns blame to U.S. government officials trying to take away gun rights) and and/or (which theorize that international conspirators set up these events to further their political agendas by falsely blaming Muslim terrorists). Our tweet and domain data suggest that the production of these narratives is a distributed activity where “successful” elements (e.g. drills, crisis actors, Zionist conspirators) of one narrative are combined with others in a mutually reinforcing manner……

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