Joan Donovan, What is Media Manipulation?
Abstract: Journalists face a barrage of information and they must make choices about which stories to cover based on available source materials. Some stories, though, are just that, stories. Our research maps and tracks attempts by “media manipulators” to influence journalists and bait them into picking up false stories. During breaking news events, media manipulators act quickly to establish their narratives by creating and seeding content in order to trick journalists into covering specific highly politicized wedge issues. Manipulators often rely on the speed and ubiquity of social media, which has quickened the pace of news, to make wide scale distribution of polarizing hoaxes possible. Manipulation campaigns are planned and executed across multiple platforms online simultaneously in an effort to capture a wide audience of both everyday users and to ensnare journalists. Broadly, we refer to these tactics as “source hacking,” a versatile set of techniques for feeding false information to journalists, investigators, and the general public during breaking news events or across highly polarized wedge issues.
- Donovan, J. 2020. “Thank You for Posting: Smoking’s Lessons for Regulating Social Media. MIT Technology Review.
- Donovan, J. 2020. “Covid Hoaxes Are Using a Loophole to Stay Alive—Even after Content Is Deleted.” MIT Technology Review. 2020.
- Donovan, J. 2020. “Trump’s Viral Flu Tweet Proves America Is Losing the Battle against Covid Misinfo.” NBC News.
Bio: Dr. Joan Donovan is the Research Director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. Dr. Donovan leads the field in examining internet and technology studies, online extremism, media manipulation, and disinformation campaigns. She leads The Technology and Social Change Project (TaSC). TaSC explores how media manipulation is a means to control public conversation, derail democracy, and disrupt society. TaSC conducts research, develops methods, and facilitates workshops for journalists, policy makers, technologists, and civil society organizations on how to detect, document, and debunk media manipulation campaigns. Dr. Donovan and the TaSC team produce:
Dr. Donovan’s research and teaching interests are focused on media manipulation, effects of disinformation campaigns, and adversarial media movements. She teaches a graduate-level course on Media Manipulation and Disinformation Campaigns (DPI-622) with a focus on how social movements, political parties, governments, corporations, and other networked groups engage in active efforts to shape media narratives and disrupt social institutions.
Dr. Donovan’s research can be found in academic peer-reviewed journals such as Social Media + Society, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (JCE), Information, Communication & Society, Social Studies of Science, and Online Information Review. Her contributions can also be found in the books, Data Science Landscape: Towards Research Standards and Protocols and Unlike Us Reader: Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives. Dr. Donovan’s research and expertise has been showcased in a wide array of media outlets including NPR, Washington Post, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, and more.
Prior to joining Harvard Kennedy School, Dr. Donovan was the Research Lead for Data & Society’s Media Manipulation Initiative, where she led a large team of researchers studying efforts to manipulate sociotechnical systems for political gain. She continues to hold an affiliate appointment with Data & Society. Dr. Donovan received her Ph.D. in Sociology and Science Studies from the University of California San Diego, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics, where she studied white supremacists’ use of DNA ancestry tests, social movements, and technology.