When should the press pay attention to trolls, lies and disinformation?

Whitney Phillips (previously), a researcher at the "think/do tank" Data & Society (previously) has prepared a snappy, short report on the paradox of covering disinformation campaigns, trolling, and outright lies?

At the heart of the conundrum is the idea that merely reporting on this kind of bullshit can give it "oxygen" that it needs to thrive and spread. But ignoring disinformation means not countering it, and if the disinformation comes from powerful people (like, say, the President of the United States), there's an element of dereliction of duty if the press doesn't cover it (presidential lies are intrinsically newsworthy).

Phillips ends the paper with a set of concrete recommendations for when and how to cover lies and disinformation: don't report on lies, report on the systems that are spreading the lies; assign stories about trolls to writers who are familiar with their communities and norms; after a crisis, always assume that 4chan is full of lies; watch out for "overly amateur" videos and such that may have been deliberately roughed up to make them look authentic; talk to digital sources face-to-face (when possible); don't attribute a bunch of ganked social media posts to "the internet" (as in, "The internet is angry about _____ "); and never forget that trolls are trying to play you as a journalist.

The recommendations also include sections on determining newsworthiness, covering harassment, writing about lies and covering bigots, abusers and provocateurs.

■ While stories must address the manipulators, bigots, and abusers involved in particular attacks, reporting should avoid framing bad actors as the center of the narrative.

■ When framing a story about specific white nationalists and supremacists, reporters and editors should run a newsworthiness calculus on each personal detail they are considering reporting.

■ Reporters and editors should be aware of how strategic many groups of white supremacists and nationalists are in their communications and messaging, which is geared toward maximizing recruitment. Similarly, reporters and editors should be aware that extremist groups, along with other groups of media manipulators, are eager to use journalistic norms as a weapon against journalism.

■ Building on longstanding best practices in journalism, reporters and editors should respond with heightened vigilance when antagonists, bigots, or other stripes of manipulator reach out with a tip or unsolicited commentary. Ask whether or not the apparent agenda can be verified.

■ In cases when a reporter is inclined to reach out directly to a specific antagonist, manipulator, or abuser, they should first reflect on whether the story absolutely requires quotes from these individual

If the story does warrant an interview (because it helps establish context, because it more clearly illustrates what exactly the individual is advocating, because it serves a counter-argumentative function), reporters should situate bigoted or manipulative sources’ statements historically and ideologically, and minimize the inclusion of euphemistic dog whistles.

■ Reporters should be aware that all communications in emails and in interviews, in fact anything reporters say publicly or even semi-privately about a particular story and/or subject, may be used against the reporter and/or their publication.

■ Whether subjects are directly interviewed or are observed on social media, reporters should weave the performative nature of manipulators’ actions into the story.

■ Stories should minimize focus on individual motivations or personal psychology.

■ Stories should a void deferring to manipulators’ chosen language, explanations, or justifications; for example, when violent white supremacists claim they are just trolling in order to deflect personal responsibility for spreading hate. They may say it’s “just trolling,” but stories should describe the behaviors, and their impact on targeted communities, as accurately and as free of euphemism as possible. Just as importantly, stories should not employ the aggressors’ insider lingo to describe specific actions or targets.

The Oxygen of Amplification [Whitney Phillips/Data & Society]

(via Naked Capitalism)

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