Demystifying Media at the University of Oregon

#48 Demystifying Dark Participation with Thorsten Quandt

Episode Summary

Standing in for Damian Radcliffe, University of Oregon journalism professor and journalism program director Seth Lewis talks with top media scholar Thorsten Quandt about "dark participation" on the Internet and what such forms of communication mean for democracy.

Episode Notes

About Our Guest:
Thorsten Quandt is a professor of online communication at the University of Münster in Germany. He has authored and co-authored over 150 articles and books on topics including online journalism, participatory and citizen journalism, social media, and online gaming. His work has been cited more than 11,000 times by fellow academics. He is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including being nominated twice to the list of the top 40 most significant young scientists in Germany. 

Find Thorsten Quandt Online:
Google Scholar
University of Munster Bio Page

Listen to Torsten's lecture, "From participation to dark participation: online news between hope and hate."

Watch Thorsten's video Q&A

Show Notes
0:03: Show and guest introduction
1:16: Summary of Thorsten's Hearst Demystifying Media lecture
2:26: Evolution of Thorsten's research
4:19: Participatory journalism then and now
6:57: Changing discourse about internet communication and the media
9:19: Evaluating dark participation
12:25: Is dark participation the crisis we think it is?
16:19: Differences between dark participation in Europe and the U.S.
22:56: Assessing the real impact of media on public opinion
28:27: Advice for media consumers
30:45: Wrap-up

Read the transcript for this episode

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Episode Transcription

This podcast was transcribed automatically. The accuracy of this transcript may vary.

Seth Lewis - 00:03

Hello and welcome to the Hearst Demystifying Media Podcast. I'm Seth Lewis, the Shirley Pape Chair in Emerging Media and Director of Journalism at the University of Oregon, sitting in today for Damien Radcliffe, who's sick, and so I'll be covering this latest podcast. Today we're going to be exploring online news and particularly the question of dark participation as we dive into the societal as well as individual and attitudinal changes connected to digital media. 

Seth Lewis - 00:31

To help us discuss this I'm joined in the studio today by Dr. Thorsten Quandt, Professor and Chair of Online Communication at the University of Munster in Germany. Thorsten is currently a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia and he's previously been at University of California, Santa Barbara, Oxford Internet Institute, and Stanford University, among other places. He has more than 150 papers to his name covering topics such as disinformation, dark participation and social media and online gaming, and his work has been cited more than 11,000 times by fellow academics. He is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including being nominated twice to the top list of the 40 most significant young scientists in Germany by the national trade journal capitol. Thorsten, thanks for joining us today.

Thorsten Quandt - 01:16

Great to be here.

Seth Lewis - 01:17

So your Hearst Demystifying Media lecture last night was entitled From Participation to Dark Participation: Online News Between Hope and Hate. If people hadn't had a chance to catch this talk, I wonder if you might summarize for us some of the key points or some of the things you were thinking, particularly as you developed such a provocative title.

Thorsten Quandt - 01:38

Yeah well, part of it is kind of a reflection about my own career and the things that happened in the last 20 years in journalism, research and journalism. Because when we started, in the beginning of the 2000s, at the end of the '90s, we all hoped that online communication would be the savior, it would save journalism in a way, you know, that people could participate in journalism, and everybody was super hopeful. And this has changed over the last 20 years. And nowadays, people are talking about all these evil and problematic things online. And, yeah, so it was this journey that actually motivated me to give that provocative title to the presentation, you know, telling the story of that type of change we have in the field, but also in academia.

Seth Lewis - 02:26

You talked a bit about how it was a sort of personal journey for you as well. I mean, you came into journalism research at a moment when not many others were actually studying online communication, which sounds sort of odd now to our years and 2022. But at that time, in the late '90s, early 2000s, it was seen as this very new frontier. And in some ways, it was sort of open terrain for you to explore it. Do you want to talk just a bit about kind of how you got into this line of work, and then kind of how that led to what you're doing now?

Thorsten Quandt - 02:57

Yeah, absolutely. That was a time of exploration in a way, you know, because at that time, online communication was really the new thing. A lot of people actually were thinking it's going away, you know, that people would continue to read the newspapers on Sunday morning, you know, and that they would watch television, but online would be like, something that goes away in five years. And it's just, you know, this new thing that the young people use. And obviously, there was a lot of misinterpretation of what's happening there. And even online journalists aren't taken seriously at that time. And the same was true in a way for researchers doing that, which I thought is also an opportunity, because it was a field where everything that you did was new in a way. You really could explore. You could go to online newsrooms. You were the first person that was ever there. You could explore how people are working, how online news are actually influencing people, and how they actually use it. And there weren't, you know, previous works on that in a way. So in a way, you really felt like an explorer on a new continent in a way. And that was super exciting, especially for young scholars. Most of us that were doing that at that time were really a new young generation of people. And the older people in the field, there are still more serious things, you know, like, newspapers [unintelligible].

Seth Lewis - 04:19

And so one of the central concepts early on, and one that you developed along with some other kind of younger Emerging Scholars in around 2008, 2007,  was this idea of participatory journalism, right, this concept of participation. And of course, there's other terms like citizen journalism and others that around that time were being used to describe this relatively new and sort of uncertain phenomenon regarding how people, everyday people could contribute to the news-making process could contribute photos, videos, could write stories. potentially write or somehow contribute to things. Can you talk a bit about what was the what was the feeling then about participation in journalism and and how that has changed? I think that's obviously a key part of, as we get toward what is dark participation and what it means, I think that, you know, that background is really, really crucial aspect to that. 

Thorsten Quandt - 05:11

Yeah, I think there were a lot of expectations back then. And also, it was really hopeful, you know, in the sense that online communication was like, you know, you projected a lot of things into it. And the hope was that it would save journalism, that it would save democracy in a way. Because we had the feeling you know, that a lot of the institutionalized media were kind of detached from society. So they didn't speak with their communities anymore. And online communication was different than, you know, that you could participate, you could be part of that conversation. And a lot of online media, you know, had these forums, these open spaces where users could actually comment, or send in their photos, and so on. And so the hope was that this would be more of a debate or like a discussion within society. And so really a deeply democratic thing, yeah. And we hoped that this would be not only saving journalism, but also democracies. And there were signs of that, if you look at it, there was like, you know, Arab Spring, in 2010-'11, where everybody said, you know, this is the online revolution, is the revolution of mobile media of all these new technologies. And now people can actually exchange all these stories in from, you know, ideas and the information, and this will lead to a wave of democratization in the world. And so it was not only a hope in journalism studies, but also in political communication and so on. Yeah, well, if we look at the situation now, it was pretty naive, I think, in hindsight. But back then, it really felt good. You know, we're saving democracy. That sounds great. Right?

Seth Lewis - 06:57

Right. Hey, I think that one of the more striking things you talked about last night in your talk was showing how when scholars were talking about these issues circa 2010, there were--sorry, or even before that, too, right? They're using certain kinds of words to indicate the sort of hope and hype associated with the potential kind of emancipatory potential of democratizing technologies. And then you compare that with some of the titles that we see in research work today. Can you talk a bit about kind of that contrast, and that tenor and tone of discourse, both in academic discourse as well as kind of just public conversation about the nature of technology and its societal impact, you know, circa 15, 20 years ago, as opposed to what we're seeing in the last five, six years? 

Thorsten Quandt - 07:43

Yeah, so, I think a lot of people were not only expecting things to happen, they're demanding these things to happen. And if you look in the literature, or if you have a look at the literature, there is like a concept, you know, like, participation to be the savior, or there's a new age of online communication. Or people are saying, you know, everybody can be a journalist like my dear friend John Hartley said at one conference. And so I think he had the concept of a communicative democracy, you know, where everybody's contributing. And in a way, that's a very nice normative idea. But it doesn't take into account that not everybody is motivated to do that. So as academics, I think we were a bit too hopeful, because we thought everybody's like us, you know, that we want to be democratic. We want to contribute something to society, but a lot of people well, I mean, it's their good right to stay at home, drink a beer, and don't give a damn about democracy. And just watch television. It's okay. But as academics, I think we were expecting too much a bit. 

Seth Lewis - 08:49


Thorsten Quandt - 08:50

And if you look at the situation nowadays, it's the total opposite of that. So that has changed in that course of 10 years. If you look at the words that are used nowadays, it's cyberspace war, it's incivility, it's hate communication, and so on. So all these expectations that we had back then are kind of reverse nowadays, it's actually sometimes after feeling that people are nowadays expecting the worst. And so that's 180 degrees change, I think.

Seth Lewis - 09:19

Yeah, I think one of the interesting kind of potential implications here is that you could look back and say, well, academics as well as other observers really got it wrong. And it's probably a good thing that we're not in the prediction business, because clearly we were not so good. And I do think that you know, the wrongness of science, so to speak, in this particular instance, as in other instances can be ,you know, that certainly could be weaponized by bad faith actors who want to point out the favorability of these institutions and so forth. But I think it also suggests that it should lead to a certain degree of humility about, okay, you know, what do we project forward from today that we may be getting wrong or we may have overestimated? Has the pendulum swung too far in how we evaluate these kinds of things? I think that's an interesting question to think about. But, you know, when you discussed dark participation, you sort of outlined some of its key components. So if someone asked you, you know, what does this mean, exactly? I think you've touched on some of these things already. But if you had to identify some particular forces and factors or dimensions that are really important, what would you point to?

Thorsten Quandt - 10:22

So yeah, the concept of dark participation is basically kind of a double edged sword, because I use it in an article to show how problematic it is to now expect the worst, you know, and how we kind of changed 180 degrees and that this change is also problematic in many ways. So the article was used for that. But there's also a kind of a, you know, a model in there that a lot of people use, and it was actually not the intent of the article. But it seems to be helpful to organize your thought on that. And that model includes various components of dark participation. And dark participation basically means that you misuse, you know, the options of participation against what it was intended for. So there are actors out there that actually use online communication as a tool for hybrid disinformation. So we've seen that, or we see that at the moment in Europe, with the Ukraine, what was a crisis but now is a war. And we also saw that, during the last few crises we had, and during the COVID crisis, we saw that a lot of actors actually use online communication to spread ideology. And very often they do it, you know, not [with] their real name. That's normally on the internet. But very often, they also pretend to be somebody else. So there's a lot of proof that we have, for example, actors from other countries trying to influence, you know, the public in democratic societies, which is in Europe, for example, Russia. And I think that's one part of dark participation, you know, this type of strategic disinformation that you have. But there are other forms of dark participation that are not strategic, like trolling, which is also, you know, the use of participation not for what it was built for, but for something else, you know, basically to spread hate or to kind of be nasty to people or do something bad to them. 

Seth Lewis - 12:25

Yeah, you talked last night about how there can be you know, we, we can look at this as an individual phenomenon, certainly by just how people behave and treat one another online. But there's obviously systematic and structural and strategic kinds of endeavors that happened. And that's what your team has been studying recently, has been looking at different disinformation campaigns and other groups behind them. Can you talk a bit about what you are seeing in the data? You know, and how do you come to certain conclusions about these things? And, you know, I think it's an interesting question right now about, like, is this disinformation problem the crisis? Maybe we can talk more about this a little later. But is it the crisis that people perceive it to be? Or are there certain aspects of it that are more problematic or concerning than others, but we can just start first by just talking about some of the cases and examples you've been studying?

Thorsten Quandt - 13:10

So yeah, we had several bigger projects in Germany, especially or in Europe, where we were looking at the, you know, at attacks on basically the public on social media. So we had one project at Vos called Prop Stop, which is like [the]  short version for propaganda, stuff that was actually looking at especially the elections in Germany, 2017. And we were, for example, monitoring Twitter and other social media channels, and what we could see there that there were groups that were interested in influencing the public, and they tried to do so. So there was one case I was talking about yesterday in my presentation also, where we had a right-wing group called Reconquista Germica [that] was trying to influence the public by basically, you know, pushing specific hashtags during the, you know, election campaign and this public debate between the candidates. So, that is one type of, you know, trying to influence [the] public, that you actually choose one, an election or an event where you have probably, you know, a close election where you have two parties that are very close to each other. And then you might try to influence that last minute or while the campaign is still--or is ongoing. And we've seen that not only in Germany. We've seen it, I think in France there was a case as well when there were allegations against Macron last minute. And where it's always a bit strange, you know, when you look at it, where it comes from. In that case, in Germany with a Twitter campaign, we actually knew about it. And we also know the group because there were also journalists in that group. So they know it was a specific right wing group that actually did that. But we could see it in the data beforehand. So we actually could see how Twitter basically was changing or the flow of information was changing. That was one case. The other one was that we were looking at was COVID and how, especially what we call alternative media, were trying to give a different impression of what's happening in the country. And yeah, what we could see there is that the portrayal of democracy is always very negative. And so there's also--this is more like the long term game, you know, in a way. They tried to change the narrative about democracy and especially liberal democracies and how they work. And always the message is we're basically doomed. Democracy is not working. And we need a new kind of political principle, which is often what they propose a leadership principle. As the German I have to say, we have really bad experiences with that. So it's, you know, something that I think we should be really careful and should monitor more, because again, very often the impression is, this is the will of the people, you know, it's an open democratic expression. And people can publish anything, you know, it's okay. But very often, we get the impression, no, this is not just the normal people actually talking there. But it's people that are interested in influencing the public. And in many cases, we can actually identify these groups.

Seth Lewis - 16:19

I think one of the big fallacies is the idea that social media somehow represent popular opinion, right, that you can somehow adequately sample the interests of people by just looking at what they're tweeting about or posting about online, because, of course, most people are not on Twitter. And certainly most people, even those who are on Twitter, are not actively engaged in the platform, in really, you know, significant ways. So we certainly, we being journalists, as well as other observers, have to be quite careful, I think how we analyze that data, because it's only giving us a somewhat skewed snapshot of those types of impressions and opinions. Even though as we know, they can be highly influential because they, particularly when it comes to journalists, they have often  looked at Twitter as a kind of assignment editor. You know, they'll look to popularity online as an indication of stories to be covered and things that we should be talking about the mainstream media. And I think it's debatable whether that's actually a better approach versus other means of sourcing public opinion. But you've been talking about some of the cases in Europe, I wonder00and I think American listeners probably would see some similarities in what you've just described, and with with the dynamics here in this country,--I wonder if you could talk a bit about some comparisons between Europe and the US, or also looking more broadly, just around the world, what sort of similarities and differences do we tend to see when it comes to disinformation as well as other forms of dark participation?

Thorsten Quandt - 17:45

Well, basically, I'm just an external observer. So I would never there to analyze American politics. But from a superficial and external viewpoint, I think we see, you know, this polarization in the country that everybody's talking about. And I think that is not something that is just the case in the US. We see that in many Western countries and many liberal democracies. There's a tendency of more extreme positions becoming relevant in the public debate, and more polarization in these countries. The difference, I think, between the US and other countries is that you basically have a two party system here. Whereas in other countries, like in, you know, Germany or other European countries, you have four or five or six parties, which actually leads to see the situation where you always have kind of a coalition that makes it a bit different in terms of the, you know, how you would actually spread this information or try to influence the public. Because if you have a very close election, it's just 1% or 2%, this becomes much more relevant. So I think some of the European countries didn't experience as much disinformation around elections because it actually didn't make much sense, you know, to try to influence the public. If you have an election, and you have three or four parties, and they have all like 20% to 30% or less, what do you gain if you change 1% or so? That doesn't change the coalition at all. And so I think, from that point of view, I think they're not such an easy target in a way. The closer it is, and yeah, you know, if you have 1% or 2% in the election, the closer the two parties are, the more it makes sense to actually have these targeted campaigns last minute, and to target the public in a way and change the opinion of the public with information that is not factual. And I think that is is certainly something you should be aware of. And there can also be, like, external groups that try to influence countries. Again, the intent was not like that when we started with social media. The intent, it was much more, you know, like everybody can contribute that to that. But what we underestimated is, you know, first of all, I think there was this misconception of the motivation of the normal people to participate. But what we also underestimated is the motivation of other people to participate, that claim to be part of that public, but might be external forces or groups that try to influence that with something that is like, you know, a black or dark PR campaign in a way. And we've seen that in so many countries. Just another case, maybe from Europe, because we wanted to have some examples, and that one was very interesting. So we had one case where basically a TV station was coming to us with a really strange case of a website, basically it was a Facebook page, with news about migrants, and all these news were really negative. So it was really all the negative news you can have about people coming from Syria or Eastern Europe to Germany. And that site had like, I don't know, 150,000, 200,000 followers. So it was quite big, actually, quite substantial. And they said, well, it looks a bit odd, because if you have a look at the followers, it's people from all over the world. And we did a detail analysis with computational methods. And so basically, I think we had 40 countries there. And there were people from Brazil or, you know, other places in the world, or Vietnam that was seemingly super interested in that, you know, site spreading information about evil migrants in Germany. And why was that the case? So, obviously, you know, we had a look at these profiles. And obviously, these profiles looked a bit like Lego, you know, like these little bricks that were consisting of elements that were repeating. So basically what we thought is, you know, these are fake accounts. And so the television stations that took our data and actually tried to find the people that were behind it. And basically, they found them. It was basically the neo-Nazis, and they found this really, you know, motivated neo-Nazi somewhere in Eastern Germany who was behind that site and interviewed him, and he was very open about it. And he said, yeah, sure, we have that. And we have 20 more of them. And we are very motivated to influence the public with these sites. And it was just, you know, basically two handful or three handful of people, but they claimed to be 100 1000s. And so what they did is they they bought these fake accounts or set them up to give the impression that they're a really relevant force in society. And I think that's one of these cases that I mean, you know, that you're kind of pretending to be bigger. And we all know from from research and communication studies that there's this spiral of silence effect when people think there's a majority in the country, that the people who think they're not the majority basically shut up. And I think that's a strategy that a lot of these groups have, that they try to give you the impression that they're bigger than they really are.

Seth Lewis - 22:56

I think you're getting to something that is really central to this debate, which is the effects of information, right, of what are the implications or potential outcomes here? I mean, you talked a bit about or in your presentation about the long history of communication all the way back to oral cultures in prehistoric times. And as long as there's been communication, and as long as there has been some gain to be had through strategic forms of deviance and lying and so forth, you've had forms of disinformation, right. But obviously, in the current era, we now have the technologies that allow disinformation to be just spread to a degree that is unprecedented. And I think there has been obviously in the last five years a lot of interest in, okay, so what is the sort of impact here? And I wonder if, you know, we could maybe put this in the context of media effects research. Which, for more than 100 years now, researchers have been debating in our field, like, what is the actual impact of media? Clearly, it has some sort of effect, but the nature of the effect and under certain types of circumstances and context seems to be more hard to pin down exactly. And so I wonder if maybe you could just give us your thoughts briefly on, you know, when you look at the wide body of research on disinformation and misinformation, are there certain things where maybe we're getting it right, with regard to pinning down those effects? Or other areas where perhaps we need to be a little more careful about assumptions we're making?

Thorsten Quandt - 24:24

Yeah, I think we know from research that media have some effects. I think that's the one thing that we should point out, you know, it's not that people are using it and nothing's happening. I think that is the one thing we really should be, you know, aware of that. Science tells us this is not, you know, this is not a joke, you know, it has some effects. And on the other hand, sometimes people are overestimating these effects because they think it's massive, but if you look at the empirical data, the effects that we have from media are you Usually not super big, you know, it's probably mid sized or small effects that we have there. Because when people are socialized in a society and they reach a certain age, they're not likely to change their opinion that quickly. It really needs to be massive, you know. What do you have as an effect there to change their opinion, their political opinion, their worldviews in a way. So I think you shouldn't overestimate it. But you also shouldn't underestimate it. If you have disinformation, if the people get a totally different worldview, and expect the world to be different from what it actually is on factual basis, then people will react in a different way. This in a way, it has nothing to do with their worldview, their worldview might be the same. But if the the representation of the world in the media is a different one, they will react in a different way to that. And I think that's one of the effects that we have nowadays that a lot of people have, you know, on both sides of the political spectrums have very different ideas of how the world actually looks like. Especially if you just use partisan media, you know, that are on your side of the political spectrum. And this is true for both the left and the right. If you're just living in your information bubble in a way you probably have, the world that you're living in is not the world where you're, you know, where your neighbor is living in. And I think that is one of the biggest dangers that you have here, that people are not talking to each other anymore, and probably live in totally separate worlds in a way. And we have to solve that problem, I think. That people start this political or societal debate again, and actually talk to the oppositional side. And I think one thing,  there's one misconception here. I think I really want to point that out, because there's this idea of this filter bubble out there, that information is kind of mythically filtered by algorithms, and people live in a totally separate information bubble. And there's a lot of research out there showing that this is not the case. So it's not totally separate. But so people get information from other political opinions, but basically, they block it in a way. And so what I think is much more relevant here is not the information flow, but the actual choice of the people, you know, they do it on purpose, they watch Fox News or CNN on purpose, and do not watch the other side on purpose. And I think that's the much more problematic thing in a way, that at a certain point that information might reach you, but you basically block the oppositional information and actually choose just a fragment of the information spectrum that is out there. So I think that's the one thing that I learned from that type of research. The best way to save democracy is actually to broaden that spectrum of information that you get. And you should expose people to the oppositional side. So I think if you're a Democrat, I think my advice would be, you know, watch Fox News and learn about the other side. And even if you hate it, at least you learn something about their position. And the same is true if you're Republican, watch CNN. If you if you hate it, it's actually okay. It's okay to hate it. But you learn something about the position of these other people, and probably you can communicate. And if you disagree, it's also okay, but then at least you talk to each other.

Seth Lewis - 28:27

Yeah, you got to what I was going to ask you, to kind of wrap things up, which is--just what should people do? Maybe beyond those tips, do you have any other suggestions with regard to . . . obviously it may look differently from the perspective of educators or researchers, but for news consumers and citizens and people who want to feel like they're making a difference in the situation? Which I know for many of my students, they talk about how this can feel a bit overwhelming. It's easy to slide into cynicism and feel like there's no real hope. But I think you, in your talk you emphasize that there is a new hope. And there's opportunity. And so maybe, do you have a quick thought by way of hope and additional sort of suggestions for people?

Thorsten Quandt - 29:06

I mean, if you go back to where we started this discussion, you know, in the course of 10 years, we change from everything's great and there was a lot of hope, and now to everything is doom and gloom and it's all bad, you know. And I think if we get that message that this can change in 10 years, I think we also, you know, should have the hope that this can also change in the future. So I think democracy is not lost, you know, and the situation is not doom and gloom. And I think if we can restore that societal debate, I think we can save and renew our democracies in a way. And I think the answer to that is somewhere in the middle. It's not at the extreme points. I think, as I said before, you know, all sides of the Democratic spectrum, they have to agree that the debate is still possible and that you should talk to each other and that you have to compromise in a way. If you go to the extreme points, and I think that's what a lot of these groups actually want to do, they want to push society into extreme points because then you get to a point where you replace the democratic system with something else. But if you if you go to these extreme points, it's really lost. But if you say, okay, I want to meet others in the middle somewhere, and I'm open to that and not everything is lost. And we can contribute here as as users of media, but we can also contribute as professionals as journalists. And I think journalists can also open that debate in a way. They shouldn't just stay in their, you know, political bubble at one side of that spectrum. And I think that would be a good start.

Seth Lewis - 30:45

Well, we could definitely talk about this issue for quite a bit longer, but we do need to wrap things up here. We hope you've enjoyed the discussion today. Do keep an eye out for other materials from Thorsten's visit to the University of Oregon, which you can find on our website, or just Google Demystifying Media Oregon. In the meantime, it just remains for me to say thank you to Thorsten Quant for being here. It's been a real pleasure.

Thorsten Quandt - 31:08

Thank you for inviting me.

Seth Lewis - 31:09

I'm Seth Lewis. Until next time, thanks for listening.

Damian Radcliffe  - 31:21

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