A vote for a broader structural and institutional understanding of social media and disinformation.

Our sampling of readings related to social media and disinformation help to crystallize a couple of observations: a significant amount of helpful empirical work is being undertaken (some of which argues that not enough data exists to warrant generalizations).  Questions and research related to commercial advertising, media, and social media ownership point to useful lines of inquiry.  However, without a broader contextualization of albeit contested conceptualizations of social institutions and socio-economic structures at the system level that covers the longue durée, empirical work risks putting the cart before the horse or jumping prematurely to symptomatic correlation rather than comprehensive explanation. By placing empirical analysis and research findings regarding disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, and social media manipulation into the broader context of theories of capitalism, neoliberalism, liberal democracy, and mass media, we can avoid the pitfalls of incomplete research.

Perhaps the most fruitful analysis along these lines is the application by Jessica Ringrose of the logics of ‘aggrieved entitled masculinity’ within social media spaces. Building on Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theories of intersectionality, Ringrose points to the “relative degrees of privilege and oppression defined through access to structural power” as factors that help explain the support for racist, misogynistic, and rapist ideologies. Another approach is the attempt to develop propaganda models for mass media, such as the model put forward by Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, and others. In parallel with empirical research, broader theories reveal how the problems of misinformation in social media are more deeply rooted than the content, the bad actors, and vulnerable communities; when populations establish polities based on a series of myths, the foundations themselves serve as breeding grounds not just for tyranny but for the propagation and acceptance of lies; depending on how we define actually existing democracy, its limited forms of self-determination may reflect deeper vulnerabilities that serve as drivers of some of the observations of empirical research. Explanations of disinformation in social media without problematizing broader frames of reference echo attempts to explain problems in K–12 education. Is it the teachers? Is it the school system? Is it the curriculum? Is it the family? Or is it all of the above the larger context of the political economy, the broader socio-economic imbalances enforced by regimes of capitalist controlled markets, and obstacles to fundamental constitutional reform?

1 thought on “A vote for a broader structural and institutional understanding of social media and disinformation.

  1. Allison

    I have to agree with Noam Chomsky and as a media studies undergrad that mass media surely is propaganda and now so is Social Media. Anything with potential to be hash-tagged could be considered to be propaganda on Instagram. Furthering my concern are the tools that are so readily available to create fake social media posts for free and students are now learning how to do this in school, likely as young as high school. The other thing worth mentioning here is the selective censorship that social media experiences versus the how the mass media may censor. Large social tech companies get to control what we see versus what CNN, Fox etc journalists decide. Great post.

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