How can we study disguised propaganda on social media? Some methodological reflections

Jannick Schou and Johan Farkas at DataDrivenJournalism: ’Fake news’ has recently become a seemingly ubiquitous concept among journalists, researchers, and citizens alike. With the rise of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, it has become possible to spread deliberate forms of misinformation in hitherto unforeseen ways. This has also spilled over into the political domain, where new forms of (disguised) propaganda and false information have recently begun to emerge. These new forms of propaganda have very real effects: they serve to obstruct political decision-making processes, instil false narratives within the general public, and add fuel to already heated sites of political conflict. They represent a genuine democratic problem.

Yet, so far, both critical researchers and journalists have faced a number of issues and challenges when attempting to understand these new forms of political propaganda. Simply put: when it comes to disguised propaganda and social media, we know very little about the actual mechanisms through which such content is produced, disseminated, and negotiated. One of the key explanations for this might be that fake profiles and disguised political agendas are incredibly difficult to study. They present a serious methodological challenge. This is not only due to their highly ephemeral nature, with Facebook pages being able to vanish after only a few days or hours, but also because of the anonymity of its producers. Often, we simply do not know who is disseminating what and with what purpose. This makes it difficult for us to understand and research exactly what is going on.

This post takes its point of departure from a new article published in the international academic journal New Media & Society. Based on the research done for this article, we want to offer some methodological reflections as to how disguised propaganda might be investigated. How can we research fake and disguised political agendas? And what methodological tools do we have at our disposal?…

two main methodological advices spring to mind. First of all: collect as much data as you can in as many ways as possible. Make screenshots, take detailed written observations, use data scraping, and (if possible) participate in citizen groups. One of the most valuable resources we had at our disposal was the set of heterogeneous data we collected from each page. Using this allowed us to carefully dissect and retrace the complex set of practices involved in each page long after they were gone. While we certainly tried to be as systematic in our data collection as possible, we also had to use every tool at our disposal. And we had to constantly be on our toes. As soon as a page emerged, we were there: ready to write down notes and collect data.

Second: be willing to participate and collaborate. Our research showcases the immense potential in researchers (and journalists) actively collaborating with citizen groups and grassroots movements. Using the collective insights and attention of this group allowed us to quickly find and track down pages. It gave us renewed methodological strength. Collaborating across otherwise closed boundaries between research and journalism opens up new avenues for deeper and more detailed insights….(More)”