Demystifying Media at the University of Oregon

#52 Demystifying Media Guest Lecture: From Participation to Dark Participation with Thorsten Quandt

Episode Summary

This podcast is a recording of University of Münster professor Thorsten Quandt's lecture, "From participation to dark participation: online news between hope and hate." Online communication has been subject to many projections and wild speculation, both in society and academia. In particular, online news and participation were greeted with optimism and hopes for democratic rejuvenation. However, not all of these expectations were met. On the contrary: In recent times, academics have been discussing how destructive forms of “dark participation” serve malicious purposes and undermine democracy. How did it come so far? In his presentation, Thorsten sketches the development of online news and participation during the past 20 years, discuss urgent issues, and outline potential solutions, including for democratic countries under stress.

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

Download the transcript for this episode

Listen to our in-depth interview with Thorsten

Watch Thorsten's video Q&A

Want to listen to this interview a different way? Find us wherever you get your podcasts:
RSS Feed
Apple Podcasts
Google Podcasts
Amazon Music/Audible

You can find more Demystifying Media content, like video interviews and lecture recordings, on YouTube.

Episode Transcription

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

Seth Lewis  00:00

It's my great pleasure this evening to introduce my friend and fellow traveler in the study of journalism, technology, and society. Professor Thorsten Quandt is full professor of online communication at the University of Muenster in Germany. He is presently on leave as a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia, which allowed him to make the trip much easier from Vancouver to Eugene. His work focuses on societal changes connected to the internet and new media technologies generally. Recent research includes studies on dark participation, online propaganda, dysfunctional online use, and the transformation of journalism. Previous academic stations for him include the University of Hohenheim, where he was the chair of online communication, interactive media, and also director of the Institute of Communication Studies. He's had stints at distinguished programs such as the Free University of Berlin and LMU Munich. He has held visiting positions at Stanford, Oxford, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. He's published or co-authored more than 200 scientific articles and several books, and his research has been cited widely, not only in journalism studies, but also in several other fields of media and communication research, such as game studies, and more broadly in fields that study addiction and behavioral science. On a more personal note, I had the pleasure of getting to know Thorsten during the time that I spent with him and about 25 other researchers at a special week long retreat held at a computer science research center in a remote corner of Western Germany, which for me is a true highlight of my academic journey. I think you'll greatly enjoy hearing him speak about concepts that he has helped pioneer, ones that help us understand the nature of digital media news, democracy, and the active audience in the 21st century. Please join me in welcoming Thorsten Quandt.

Thorsten Quandt  01:45

Thank you, and thank you for the kind introduction. And I already told Seth, you know, if that would be a lecture at my home university at six o'clock in the evening, nobody would be in the room. We would be like three people. So I'm really, really happy to be here and to see so many people here. To keep you interested, I chose a very uplifting title, from participation to dark participation. And the subtitle is, I guess not much better: Online Use Between Hope and Hate. So this is a bit of a personal presentation also, because I think part of it, this is a reflection on my personal journey in that field. And also that article that I wrote on dark participation, if you get the chance to read it, is more more or less a reflection about, you know, my own thoughts while being in the field for about 20 years or so. So it will be quite a bit of a ride today, you know, wild ride, I guess. 

Thorsten Quandt  02:39

So as I said, it will be a wild ride, but I will try to organize it a little bit and do that in four steps. So we will talk in the beginning, or I will talk about the changes that we've seen lately and the transition we've been going through in the last few years. And I think it's really a point in history where we probably say in hindsight, it was a point where, you know, history changed its course in many ways. Then we will also talk about propaganda journalism and societal communication and to the connections between these. And then I will show you a few empirical snippets from the work we've been doing in the last few years in Munster together with my team. As Seth mentioned, it's not just me, we're working together in a team of six, seven empirical researchers doing journalism research with computational methods these days. I've not done that, you know, 20 years ago, when I started my career 25 years ago, but that's something that happened in the last few years. And some of it is quite interesting in terms of what we can learn from that. So I'm pretty excited about that type of research that we can do nowadays. We actually dreamed about doing that type of research decades ago. But nowadays, many things are possible. Last part is solutions to the problem that we see with propaganda and disinformation these days. So I labeled it "A New Hope." There's a trademark here because it belongs to that specific Jedi. But I won't talk about Luke Skywalker today. So begun and it just, you know, it's kind of, I always try to sneak in a Star Wars joke, or quote in my presentations. And if you read my papers, by the way, usually there aare also Star Wars quotes in there. 

Thorsten Quandt  02:39

The slides move. So we start with, you know, work in journalism and participation. And then we will continue with--yeah, this t -shirt, it actually says "Save Journalism" there. You probably cannot read it. There will be a bigger version later on. It was designed by my dear friend David Domingo, who's a researcher in that field. And we're quite happy that he didn't end up in T shirt design but in research because [that] T-shirt is not the most exciting one, I would say. 

Thorsten Quandt  02:48

Then we will talk about the guy with the hoodie that you probably have seen in the version somewhere in the media. And then we will also talk about the Ukraine war today, COVID, and this guy. So it will be pretty long and strange, right, today. And we will also talk about soccer. So I'm European, sorry about that. Hopefully it will all make sense in the end, but you maybe can just write down notes. You know, what will show up in that presentation and make a game out of it. And I tried to actually squeeze all of that in the 45 minutes here. 

Thorsten Quandt  05:33

So, yeah, I said, you know, let's start with the turning point that we have at the moment. And probably, I mean, I don't need to mention that because we all lived through that time. So one turning point was this guy: the Coronavirus. It actually looks if you look at it, kind of elegant and beautiful. But as we know, the consequences of that weren't that elegant or beautiful. And it doesn't really depend on how you stand here, you know, in terms of what you think about the whole issue and the last few years, but definitely, it had some impact not only on the health, but also on societies around the globe. So we have seen things in Germany happening during the pandemic. And we also in Germany had, you know, people trying to storm the parliament in reaction to the Coronavirus crisis. So you see these people here, it's actually a very strange combination of people. So you see American flags, you see Russian flags on the other side, you see Q-Anon signs somewhere. You also see peace symbols. So what we could see in these last two or two and a half years that we have new groups and societies that have just one thing in common: they basically are not happy with the democratic system that we have in the country, and they basically want to overthrow that system. And really [they] are coming from very, very opposite directions, usually not the directions you would expect. That's one thing we've seen. And we've seen similar developments in many countries around the globe. So it's not just Germany. And I can reassure you, it's also not just the US where we see signs of polarization. So it's a very common principle these days. 

Thorsten Quandt  07:15

Another historic turning point is just happening at the moment. So also, I think I don't have to explain too much about that. That's just to symbolize the Ukraine crisis that has become a war. With this pretty ridiculous long table, where you see the French president Macron on the one side, and Vladimir Putin on the left side. That's a topic that at the moment the Europeans are very worried about. And it's something that we have, you know, in the news, every single day because it's very close to home. From the perspective of, you know, now I'm in Canada or the US, it's probably far away, but there's just one country in between us and the war. And we have neighboring countries, obviously, that have a direct border with Ukraine, and also with Russia. So it's really close to home. Actually, I have both Russian and Ukrainian students in my classes, which is--yeah, it poses all kinds of problems. And obviously, that is a problem that we will see. And it's actually, you know, the first full scale war we have [had] in Europe that is not kind of a civil war since the Second World War. And again, this is a turning point. 

Thorsten Quandt  08:29

And all of these developments somehow have something to do with online communication. They're always kind of happening in the field of online communication--there's always some kind of reporting on it on the one hand, but also opinion pieces on these conflicts on the other hand, and that is something I will talk about in the next few minutes: how we see that a lot of these conflicts nowadays and the problems we have are kind of hybrid, that they're happening in the real world, but they're also happening online, and both kind of amplify each other in a way. And this is the starting point. 

Thorsten Quandt  09:06

So as I said, you know, it will be a wild ride. And to make it a bit more, you know, more interesting, I tried to mix it also with some historical and personal stories about how this developed in the last 20 years, I would say, but maybe even longer. Maybe you have to go back in history to the beginning or very beginning of communication to understand what's happening these days. And that's actually what I want to do and really want to go back very far in time, start with the very early societies we had. Because I think an understanding for what we see today actually also needs a kind of a historical background, and also kind of a theoretically informed model [of] what communication actually is. 

Thorsten Quandt  09:51

So I will simplify very much here but if we go back in time, very early communities could be explained by this very simple network that we see here, you know. You had a few people, you had direct connections, but it's between these people. So person A and new person B, they were communicating. And probably they could all sit around, you know, a campfire and talk about their problems. And it was basically face to face communication. 

Thorsten Quandt  10:18

So here comes this guy that I've shown you on the first slide. So early societies for basically all societies. And basically, all the problems that you had there could be solved in a way, you know, in indirect communication. Some of them probably weren't solved, but at least there was the face to face communication as a tool to solve that. So people were maybe hunting or  whatever they were doing at that time. And if there was a problem, then they could directly address that problem in the community. And interesting enough, there's also some historical analysis saying that, for example, medieval markets in cities around Europe had the size of, you know, the reach of your voice, because at that time, also, people were standing there talking to each other on the marketplace. And it was still kind of oral. So basically, the marketplace had to end there where your voice could travel. And if it couldn't travel further, the marketplace was too big. So basically, if you go to European cities just have a look at these marketplaces and how small they are. Because basically, they had to fit the communities still. 

Thorsten Quandt  11:23

So societies were becoming more complex over time. And there's an argument made by Harold Innes in his seminal book, Empire and Communications, in yeah, I think 848 and 850 where he said, basically, there's a link between the development of societies, the growth of human societies, and the growth of communication and the tools we have for that. So he said, you know, if you have other tools of communication, societies can grow. And on the other hand, the growth of communication as of societies also actually needs other tools of communication. Because if the society is bigger, you cannot reach everybody by, you know, just normal communication, face to face communication. Which is obvious here if you look at this very still, it's a small network, but it's a bit more complex than the first one. So if you communicate here, and you want to communicate with the person there, it actually takes several steps in that network. And the more complex the network is, the less efficient face to face communication is. So if we wouldn't have media, I think that would be the moment to actually invent media, to kind of actually still make this society work. 

Thorsten Quandt  12:36

What we did, as human beings, we came up with solutions for these complexity issues, but not all of them were actually related to media or directly to media. So one solution for that was basically societal differentiation, and reign. So basically, you had a leader principle, and then the leader basically said to the rest of the people what they should do. Now we could argue about that principle. Probably, it's not the best way to live together as human beings, but it was kind of stable for centuries. And it's solved the decision making process in more complex societies in a way, because basically, then you had the leader principle. And a lot of decision making wasn't actually done by communication between the members of society, but basically from the top to the, you know, people that were in the society. 

Thorsten Quandt  13:28

Now, this guy comes into play. I don't know whether you know him. It's Pope Gregory the 15th. Probably nobody knows him from the pictures. I wouldn't have known him. But he had a very short range from 1621 to 1623. And why is this guy so interesting? Because this guy is basically getting the copyright for the term propaganda. So why, what did Pope Gregory do? Basically, he had an issue. So the Pope was actually confronted with the situation that there were a lot of Protestants there. And with the growth of the societies and the missionaries going to other countries, he actually said, you know, how can we actually spread the faith, the Catholic faith against the counter revolution that we have there, and the Reformation in the country, and in these countries? And so he came up with the principle saying, we have to send missionaries there and we have actually people in the society that spread the faith. And that's the actual origin of the term. Because propaganda actually means, the Latin word means spreading or expanding. So the idea here was based on the so called Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, which is the Holy Congregation for the Spreading of the Faith. And that was basically a part of Counter Reformation. So he said, we spread the word through the missionaries here. And that is where the word propaganda comes from, you know, basically spreading ideological information. In this respect, it was ideological, religious, well, communication and information. 

Thorsten Quandt  15:07

So in a general sense, propaganda was just ideological communication. But it can be also seen as a purposeful attempt to basically shape perceptions, affect emotions and cognitions, and to direct behavior in the sense of the ideology, as we can see here. That was the plan of Pope Gregory. Why did he do that? And here we come to media and journalism. Because he was fighting against something that was probably a bit more powerful even than the Catholic Church, and that was the printing press. Because that happened in the 15th century. And the Protestants were using the printing press as a tool to spread their ideology. And that was quite powerful. So, you know, in a way, the reaction of propaganda was a reaction to the media that were in the hands of the Protestants that basically were also doing kind of propaganda. And as we know, this developed into something else. 

Thorsten Quandt  16:05

Now, we are jumping in history quite a bit. As we know, these tools that were there actually developed into into a system that actually replaced the idea of reign because we as societies came up with a solution that we call media and journalism. Basically, a self observation device for society, a functional system. Not a system where you have reign, but the system wheree the society actually has members in the society working for the self observation of society. 

Thorsten Quandt  16:37

And as we all know, over time the technological and social developments that we had here also led to a situation where these media became more powerful and institutionalized. And this is where my own history comes into play. Because at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, you know, media were big institutions, but there was also the feeling among scholars in the field that they came somehow detached from society. That they were doing their own thing, but they thought their own independent power, they didn't serve the principles of the society anymore. And that led to a situation where a lot of young scholars said we have to do something about it. And at the same time, there was also development towards online communication. And then they said, Oh, look at this new tool we have, maybe this new tool can be a solution to that issue. And you know, where the institutions are so detached from society that they don't serve society anymore, where  institutions are kind of crystallized and you know, independent from the people. And we really hope that online communication is the tool for that. And this is where this t shirt comes into play. Um, so the t shirt, as I said, was designed by David Domingo in 2007. And so I make it a bit bigger. I actually have it still at home, but I'm not wearing it because it doesn't fit anymore, unfortunately. Yeah, you get a bit older, and so on. And you can see, you know, Save Journalism. And we wanted to save journalism by principles of participation of the people in the production process. Because with online communication, this was becoming an option, actually. And there were signs that this could work, like [the] Arab Spring in 2010, where a lot of people actually said this was the first kind of online and mobile media revolution. And everybody was super hopeful at the time. And it became kind of a buzzword participation, even for democratization. 

Thorsten Quandt  18:36

So the expectation was, with these tools, and with, you know, the flow of communication that we have with online now, the world will change. There will be a huge wave of democratization around the globe. You know, 2010 is just a bit more than 10 years ago. I think that's something we have to repeat. Because sometimes if you, you know, continue in history, and it's a few years later, you think, like, what was I thinking, you know. But really, there was a majority of researchers in the field that were expecting that. We wrote a book about participation at that time, that was a bit more critical, but we weren't the only ones that were, you know, projecting our hopes into, you know, participation and online communication. And you can see it in the title there. So these were heavily cited titles at the time. So Bowman and Willis with The Future of News and Information, in this book, We Media, or Axel Bruins, who invented the word "produsage," which actually means the combination of usage and producing. So the idea here is that every user can become a producer. And John Hothie and famously also said, "Everybody's a journalist nowadays." And he actually said we will have a communicative democracy. And also some people said, this is a new age of participatory news and Jay Rosen, they famously also said the people, you know, formally known as the audience are now the people that are producing news.

Thorsten Quandt  20:08

So, that sounds great. The idea more theoretically speaking was this. So we have this self observation of society by journalism. And now with online communication, we can basically include everybody in that process. So it changes from self observation to a dialogue with society. So journalism works together with society, everybody is really happy and becoming part of this production process. So we weren't really thinking about whether everybody wants to do that. But you know, there was the option. And so we thought, well, this is going to happen. 

Thorsten Quandt  20:42

Now we do a fast forward 10 years. And we go to Donald Trump, who had a very different idea about, you know, this relation here, and I don't have one to actually evaluate it. But he said this very famous quote, I think, you know, the fake news media is not his enemy, but the enemy of the American people. What does that mean, in terms of a model, if I want to sketch that model? The idea here is that you have a very different system here, where you basically have the legacy media that are, again, very detached from the society, and actually work against the society. And then also you have online media, but online media are not the tools for everybody. But you actually have to place your own information hubs there, and communicate yourself in that network, because you cannot depend on legacy media anymore. That's at least the idea here. 

Thorsten Quandt  21:36

And there were other signs of a kind of a degradation of that, you know, system, and actually this loss of hope. And that already started also in 2011, when the Guardian actually had a story about people manipulating the relation between journalism and societal communication here, where they had signs that some people claim to be users of the medium, and going into their user forums, and then basically writing strange things. In that case, and here we come to the Ukraine crisis--in that case, these people actually were very negative about Ukraine, but very positive about Russia in the user forums of The Guardian. Which is an odd thing, because why should, you know, a lot of Brits being super fans of Vladimir Putin in 2011? 

Thorsten Quandt  22:27

So they did some research on that, and actually found the people responsible for that. And the people responsible for that work was a troll agency in St. Petersburg, the so called Internet Research Agency. Nowadays, it's very famous because there have been many pieces on them. But back then, it was really kind of a shock that there are people there pretending to be somebody else, pretending to be a user and trying to influence the public from within. And the principle here is basically that by doing that, you kind of polarized society so that it decays, and this network is not a network anymore, that you get parts of the society that do not communicate with other parts of the society. And I labeled that "dark participation," which is a kind of a misuse of what participation was meant to be, where you have destructive or manipulation in the participation process, where social media become a medium of disintegration instead of a medium of integration. Like, you know, that was the thing we were hoping for. But nowadays, it's actually used for the opposite side, where people are hijacking proprietary platforms. And you actually have forms of misinformation, disinformation, hate campaigns, trolling and bullying. Which we think is a risk to Western societies because it kind of undermines the principles of liberal democracies. And again, we're not the only ones that made that change. 

Thorsten Quandt  23:58

You know, I've shown you the titles 10 years ago. Now look at the literature 10 years later, where Dietram [unintelligible], for example, and his colleagues talked about toxic talk in online media. Arrow labeled it a cyberspace war. Muddiman and Strawbs say this is partisan incivility that we have here. And Peterson, which he actually said, we came a big way, you know, from these grand narratives of democracy, that I've just briefly mentioned here in this presentation, to very small expectations of participation. Some people actually even say that we have to control the conversation online. And Nikki Asha and Matt Carlson, I think they found a very interesting way to describe it. They say we are in kind of the midlife crisis of the network society. We are at this point where you don't know  where it's going and where we have to decide, you know, for the future, who do we want to be actually? 

Thorsten Quandt  24:55

So, to just sum it up, you know what, this was a very quick ride through history, and as I said, very superficial. We had various steps in this development. But what is really important here is that these communication principles as well as journalism aren't a given. These are historic inventions. You know, it's not something that is inherent to any given society, and people fought for that. And to get from this to that and then to the modern societies, was already a struggle in many European countries. People died for that, actually. And nowadays, we're in a situation where we actually don't know whether we are, you know, in a postmodern society where we have, you know, what we hope for, tailored access to information, growing rows of intermediaries, but also pluralization, or whether we are in something like a post national or globalized society, where we have kind of influencers that are invisible, and also a lack of democratically enabled, you know, actors in that field. And with that comes the fear of atomization, disintegration, and polarization in many of the Western societies. 

Thorsten Quandt  26:10

It's not very clear where we are in this process, and whether that's inevitable. And I'm pretty sure we can do something against it. But we can see in the literature that a lot of people are really worried about that. So I just have a few terms with me. You know, people are talking about echo chambers, populism, propaganda, astroturfing, fake news, post truth, hoaxes, and so on. So it's not a very positive picture that we have of society. And as I said, you know, I added my own own concept, your "dark participation." If you read the article, by the way, it's actually an article that reflects on this darkness that we have, and actually proposes that this cannot be the solution. But what it has been used for is, you know, that a lot of people actually take out the model that's in that article and use it for kind of a like a butterfly collection, not for categorizing butterflies, but for categorizing different forms of dark participation, like hate campaigns and so on. And it really works like that. So yeah, you can basically categorize your little, you know, disinformation piece, and say, what is it? So I differentiated here, the various actors that you have here, whether it's individuals, small groups, or large groups, the reasons for their actions, the objects, whether it's the news or something else in society, who their audiences are. And that's very often not the targets, because often you target somebody with such a campaign. But the actual audience are your supporters, for example, it's not the one that you actually try to address with the information as a target or where you have a story about the person, but it's somebody else. And then there's the process, which can be unstructured, structured, or systematic, long term. In our own fields, in our own group, we do a lot of research on especially structured and systematic forms of disinformation. So state controlled, or by interested groups and societies, not so much the trolling and the individual things, you know. If there's somebody out there who really has a bad day and just writes on the internet that he hates everybody, [that] is not the problem we're talking about. We're talking about people that actually really want to undermine democracy also in the long term. 

Thorsten Quandt  28:36

And as we don't have super much time, I think we have like 15 to 20 minutes, I just want to take this principle and fill that with a bit of the empirical research we're doing in Munster. And as I said, I just have a few empirical snippets. So I will mention two projects. We've done one project that is called Prop Stop-- Propaganda Stop. Yeah, well, I know. And this project was done during the last elections in Germany. And then there's another project that is called Pandemic News and Pandemic Populism. That is a project we've done during COVID.

Thorsten Quandt  29:14

And again, this is most of it is about disinformation in society. So what did we do? In Prop Stop, that was a multi story project very nicely funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research. So all of our projects are basically publicly funded independent projects. And the goal was the identification of disinformation campaigns and dysfunctional forms of participation, and also to find prevention strategies. The ministry at that time was especially interested in the use of bots. But we did more than that. We also looked at handmade forms of propaganda, not just at bots. So what did we do in that project? For example, we basically looked at Twitter and the whole Twitter output in the country. And we looked at anomalies in that Twitter output. We were looking for patterns where you could actually imply from the pattern that this is not normal communication, but an attack basically on Twitter, and that there's an interested party behind them. So we did that during the TV debates. They're very similar to the TV debates that you have in the US. 

Thorsten Quandt  29:55

So basically, at that time, there was this guy, Schultz, who was not elected and Angela Merkel, and they were debating on television. And we analyzed what was happening on Twitter in parallel to that debate. There were quite a few features that we were looking there, like tweets per minutes to tweet-retweet ratio, user location, the age of the account, the most frequent hashtags, and so on. By the way, if you're on Twitter, for every tweet that you write, we get much, much more information than what you actually write. So the actual information that you get per tweet, it's really immense, and people are not really aware of that. So basically, for every tweet that you have out there, we basically know who you are, and where you come from, and who you're connected with. And Twitter probably knows more than us. 

Thorsten Quandt  31:20

So we analyzed that with the help of computers. And we found very interesting things happening just briefly before the TV debate. So this is a network analysis of the terms showing up in the material here. And looking at central terms and central actors in these in these terms. And basically all these clouds refer to words showing up there and hashtags. And you see a core of what is happening here on Twitter. So you see TV duel, this is German, so we have it with two L, there's Marco, which was the chancellor, Schultz, that was the other candidate. And then the big, you know, that was the Social Democrats, these are the conservatives, the parties, and you see terms relating to them. That looks very normal. What we also saw, and this is not normal, we saw a very tightly connected network up there referring to a right wing party, which is a kind of a partially neo Nazi Party, the IFD. And then there's Hurcka for Chancillor. Actually, it was not a candidate. It's a very well known person within that party. And they were saying, you know, he has to become chancellor, and there was also [unintelligible], which actually means traitor duel. And we found that very interesting, because that was so coherent and it was referring to terms that weren't really related to what was happening here on television. And we had a look at the time based progress of these hashtags. You know, you see here, that's seven o'clock and continues to like 1030 or so. And you see the terms and how they develop over time. So basically, the TV divide happened here, and then you saw, you know, normal terms here, like TV duel, and whatever. And what you can see that there is like, you know, this big, maybe I was too fast, but you could see it, you know, there was this big kind of mountain, where directly before the debate, and during the debate, a few terms, and especially the terms that I mentioned, were going through the roof. So we said, Okay, this is not looking normal. And in addition to that, most of these were actually coming from accounts that were just a few days old, or sometimes even just a few hours. So we actually said, Okay, this must be kind of an attack on Twitter to kind of influence what is happening on Twitter in parallel to the TV debate. Funnily enough, there was a medium, BuzzFeed, that did research on that in parallel to us. we didn't know about that. So next week, they actually we had a press release that there was an attack on public communication in Germany. And BuzzFeed also had a news piece on that, because basically, they had journalists in these groups that were doing that, while they were doing that, and basically, who was behind that was the right wing group called [unintelligible], so like Reconquer Germany. And these people actually had the plan to influence the elections by influencing the public debate. They weren't really successful with that, obviously, because that's the long term development. What you can see here is basically their attack. So that was just relevant slightly before that TV bit until 8:30. And you can see, you know, the big development here, that's the normal terms referring to the to the TV debate, and basically, they continued and took over. So they didn't have success in the long run and the guys behind that and their leader Nikolai Alexander actually declared they will focus on YouTube in the future and YouTube voting, and that Twitter is not their medium and that they're probably not successful with that, and have other plans. 

Thorsten Quandt  35:12

Personally, I think they we're not professional enough for a large impact. But for us, it was a warning sign that you basically can try to do that. And people are out there doing that, and there was actual proof here. So it wasn't just the proof we had in the material. But there was also the proof, you know, with the people doing the research on this attack, and having people within these groups. So this is one example of, you know, how people are trying to influence the public debate. And we know from other cases that are out there and happening, not only in Germany, but also in other countries. 

Thorsten Quandt  35:49

And let's go to just briefly to the pandemic, because we've continued our work on, you know, populism and influencing the public there. What we've done there, we used Facebook during the pandemic as a tool to access all the news in the country. A lot of people actually said it's a Facebook study, but it's not. We were using Crowdtangle to get access to news that were basically on Facebook. But every news and news outlet in the country basically publishes its major news on Facebook. So it's really a tool for us to get an overview of the whole of the news flow in the country. And basically, it's still ongoing, but what I will show you in a minute is the first year of the pandemic. So we collected all the news in the country that we could get, which was 775,000, and something. And we also had a look at the so called alternative news in the country. So alternative news media, news that claimed to be different, oppositional. And most of them are kind of right wing media that we have in the country. And we tracked what they were doing as well. Some of them were actually related to the people that were also trying to storm the parliament in Germany, the so called creating movement, which was a movement that was kind of developing during the corona crisis, basically opposing all the measures by the government, but also, in many ways, opposing democracy, per se. 

Thorsten Quandt  37:21

And when I say alternative media, as I said, you know, many of them were actually right wing media, but there were also others in there. So it was not just the right wing media, but we also had groups in there, like RT. There's a lot of talk about RT nowadays, that's Russia Today. Russia Today as a television channel. By the way, it was blocked in Germany. That was something really new during the Ukraine crisis because basically, they said, this is not journalism, but it's a propaganda channel. And we also had individual alternative media by x journalists that try to do something else. They weren't hired by other media after they left their previous medium for several reasons. Probably skip that, because the definition and the list of that can be seen online. So we were referring here to the work by [unintelligible], where we actually defined alternative media as chairing a certain stylistic orientation. And yeah, where most of it is rooted in right wing and populous communities in Germany, which is not because, you know, we had a bias here. Because we would have looked at left alternative media as well. But there aren't really many in the country. The reason for that is that a lot of the left is actually represented also in German politics because the spectrum there is probably a bit wider than what you have in the US, and it's usually a multi-party parliament that we have there. It's not just two, but usually we have . . . in the past, we had four or five. And so it's kind of a bit broader here.

Thorsten Quandt  39:05

So yeah, let's go to the findings. We skipped the details here. And what I show you here is the flow of news over time. And what you can see here, this is the COVID related posts, and this is the rest of the posts. You can see that basically during March, April and May of 2020, COVID was the one topic in the country. By the way, all these little dents, these are the weekends. So on the weekends, you have less reporting, and you can also see that in the material. And now what we did with with our analysis, we applied something that's called topic modeling. Again, I will not go into detail because it's pretty complex. And if you're into a methods, it's fancy, but if you're not, it's probably a bit boring. But what it does, this method actually works inductively from the material. So it basically finds topics in the material without you telling the computer to find a very specific topic. So it finds these clusters in the material. And then after it has found that you can basically label them. And from that analysis, we could identify several main topics and the reporting. And this is for the mainstream media here. So we found reporting on incidence rate, on challenges to society, on the crisis management, the societal debates, cultural life, and also a bit of tabloid and soft news. And this is getting really fascinating if you do that type of research because you actually can have a look at the flow of topics over time and how they develop also basically in competition to each other. And overall, it was a very, you know, expected development here. 

Thorsten Quandt  40:45

So in the beginning, you had the breaking news, then media gave more context, more interpretation. Then you got more background news. Then you had a broadening of the perspective, and more or less than normalization after, you know, two or three months where COVID became a normal topic. And it was kind of, you know, when there were new events then you could see there was a spike again in the material, but basically it was at a certain level and became normalized more or less in the journalistic system. 

Thorsten Quandt  41:15

That's not the most interesting part. The more interesting part is what happened in the alternative news media at that time. So again, we apply the same method. So there's no difference here. But just the material is different. So these were the alternative news media sites. And they actually told a very different story of COVID in terms of the colors, how they portrayed the crisis. So again, you had infection numbers, that was the same, but then there was a lot of negative talk about economic consequences, a lot of criticism about crisis management of the government, a criticism of the protection measures, anti vaccination movement, refusal of mask was a big topic, and so on. Also, criticizing lockdown, and also a lot of stories on distrust in the government. 

Thorsten Quandt  42:06

And it becomes very interesting if you go into detail. And that's one of the benefits of that method, that you basically can zoom in and see what's in these topics. And then it becomes really, really strange, because a lot of these alternative media were talking about a crisis management in Russia, which is kind of odd, because why would you want talk about that? And the story was that the crisis management in Russia is much better than in Germany. Also, there was a lot of talk about the shortcomings of our own governments. And basically, also, in the beginning, especially the fear of COVID being spread by migrants. 

Thorsten Quandt  42:41

By the way, this is a topic around the globe, but the migrants that are responsible for COVID are different in the various countries, which I find very odd, you know, in a way, so everybody's blaming the other person for being responsible for it. So in Germany, it was especially Eastern Europeans that were mentioned there. Or other minor migrants, for example, from Syria, and so on. I heard for example, in Canada, a lot of Asian people were blamed for that. So this is actually kind of the same story, but actually with a different object. 

Thorsten Quandt  43:14

And if you look at protection measures, we had a lot of trivialization of COVID already from the beginning that was already starting in March. And the refusal of masks was also already starting in March 2020, as well as the anti vaccination movement that you could actually see in the material before it happened in the streets. Interesting enough, we didn't find a lot of conspiracy narratives here. And also, we didn't find a lot of lies in that material. How this media operate is basically telling a different story of society, saying, this society is basically doomed, and democracy is at its end. 


Thorsten Quandt  43:52

So what we've seen in our empirical analysis are two ways of influencing the public. The first one that I've shown you with relation to the debates here was basically targeted disinformation attacks at a specific moment in time, usually happening within the system and targeting specific events in the system, like elections. This makes sense. If you would be somebody who wants to spread this information, this makes sense, especially in terms of, you know, when they're close elections. Then last minute you basically release some disinformation and try to influence the election, if there's like one or 2% of a difference. 


Thorsten Quandt  44:34

And actually, that makes countries with close elections or like a two party system, you know, in danger to be object of that type of disinformation attack. In Germany, it's a bit more difficult because we have so many parties so they have to form coalition's anyway. So personally, I think the gain to do that is not as high as in other countries where you really have this last minute swing or this possibility of last minute swing. 


Thorsten Quandt  45:01

And then you have this other way of trying to influence the public, which is basically changing the narrative of society. And I think that is the long game. So basically, it's challenging the whole system, and it's trying to disintegrate society. So finally, we have, like, two minutes left, I think Finally, I think that sounds horrible in a way, you know, if you're really believing in democracy, but I think there are ways to solve that problem. And there are two solutions to that, depending on the model of the society that you have there. 


Thorsten Quandt  45:36

There's two types of societies that I would say you're have societies where you still have some kind of coherence where the polarization is not that problematic. And then you have another type of sorry, you have another type of society where the polarization is so big that these groups in society do not talk to each other. And depending on that, the solutions might look different. So if you have a society where this is just beginning, one solution would be awareness, resilience-building, identifying these shifts and sources of disintegration and make them public. And also stop external forces of disintegration. If other countries are basically trying to interfere with your country and try to change your country, probably you should do something about it. You should also stop the repulsion effects between groups in society and try to integrate them and probably foster something that was called agonistic pluralism. That's a word that goes back to Belgian sociologist [unintelligible[, which basically means a situation where you have, you know, arguments in society where you disagree in society, but at least you agree to disagree. Where you give the other position the right to disagree with you. And basically also have to strengthen the joint narrative of the society again to find kind of a common ground. If that is not possible anymore, I think what we should do as societies is we have to bridge the gaps between these groups and society. Which basically means that you have to overcome antagonism in society where you actually have to make your enemies to dialogue partners, and find some common ground again, and find a new joint narrative of society. Because really the goal of people that want to, you know, disintegrate society and foster this type of polarization, their goal is actually that people are not speaking to each other anymore because they're so far apart that there's no common ground again. And that's basically their goal. Because they win if that is happening, because their final goal is basically to replace democracy by a different principle. 


Thorsten Quandt  47:43

And again, we don't see that just in one country. We see that in many democratic countries at the moment. And again, not all of it is coincidence, quite a bit of it is actually targeted disinformation. And, you know, I promised I will give you just a little bit of soccer here. And there it comes. This is not soccer, actually. So I think what academia should do here, and probably that is the uplifting message at the end here--we shouldn't stand at the sidelines, we should actually become involved. Here's the soccer version of it. We shouldn't be like these parents, you know, sitting somewhere and just watch the game, watch what's happening there, and then sometimes yell at people and say, oh, you should do better. Or, you know, why didn't you score a goal or something like that? And sometimes we do that as academics, you know, we're shouting at society and saying, Oh, well, why aren't you performing better there? And I think we should become part of that game and actually become involved. And with that, I probably stop my insight here and my input, and I'm looking forward to your questions. Thank you.

Thorsten Quandt  48:54

Yeah, some time for questions. I'm happy to bring the microphone around to you for your questions.

Speaker 1  49:11

Thank you so much for coming. So my question is, how can the more moderate nuanced message compete with the really catchy extreme messages out there? I think that's one of the big things that I've been considering.

Thorsten Quandt  49:28

Yeah, I mean, there are a lot of proposed solutions for that. So one thing that people are doing and especially journalistic media are doing is debunking. Although I'm not so sure that works because their psychological worldview actually shows you that if you do debunking, you're actually strengthening the original message. And that is a big problem, you know, because very often, and I talked to journalists also in Germany and also to people doing fact checking and so on, and very often you basically play their game by, you know, saying this is not true, this is not true. And by repeating that, people thinking, well, if these people are saying all the time it's not true, maybe it's true, you know. Maybe the opposite is right. And we're talking here about a situation where, at the end point, you basically have religious beliefs, you know, where basically you have either that belief system or that belief system. And if you're in a religion, and we can see that, you know, in all religions, an ideology is very closely connected to religion, as we've seen in the history. But if you're in one group, then you basically do not listen to the other group anymore, right? And so basically, all that debunking fails at that point. 

Thorsten Quandt  50:38

So what I think is more important here is education very early on to tell people about production processes in media, about how actually society works. Because we know from our experience in our country that people do not know much about the processes. So there's a lot of, you know, with all these fake news allegations, there are a lot of assumptions of how journalism works. And people do not know how newsroom works. And if you actually make that more transparent early on, you know, in schools and probably take kids to media and tell them, you know, here are the people actually producing these news. These are human beings, you know, they're working hard to do that, it probably would already help. 

Thorsten Quandt  51:19

Also give the people, you know, background on the political situation and how things are developing. Because very often, it's the lack of knowledge that leads to the belief and myths or disinformation. And then I think there's also a psychological aspect involved here because a lot of people that go into the extreme groups, they actually feel not listened to, you know. Nobody actually hears their voices. And so very often, I think it's very helpful to just listen to these people and take them seriously, even if they're--and especially if they have an opposing opinion--if they're from different political spectrum. Because very often it's not about, you know, convincing the other person that your position is correct, but basically, have a dialogue again, you know. Like I've shown in the beginning, you know, if that is the principle of democracy, that you might have different opinions, but at least you have this this agreement, that the other position is valid. And this is true for the left and for the right. I think this is not like a one way street, you know, where you can say, Oh, these are the evil guys, because as soon as you say that you basically play that game, right? I'm not sure whether that answers your question. But, you know, I think we very often have these very quick solutions to that. Whereas the problem is deeper, because the problem is a problem of democratic societies at a certain point in time. And it's also a problem of, yeah, communicative principles being used against their original intent, you know, in a way, you know. Because, as I said, you know, just 10, 15 years ago, we were painting a very different pictures of the picture of the future of communication. And nobody actually expected this to happen, you know. That just 10 years later, people are basically fighting each other in a way, you know, and saying, Oh, you're a liar, you're a liar, which is not what we expected. We expected people being there online and telling stories about democracy, helping others, you know, being citizens in the very sense of the word. And that's why we came up with principles like citizen journalism, and so on, because we said, you know, this is a chance for democracy. And now we see, well, this kind of backfired in a way. Yeah, sorry. It's probably not the solution, but a few ideas on what to do. They're great, especially the engagement part. Thank you very much.

Speaker 2  53:56

Thank you so much for the very informative and also provocative challenge to all of us. I have one question relating to some kind of diametrically different approach on the context of sort of a comparison, South Korea versus the United States. As most of us are aware, South Korea is the most networked country of the whole world. At the same time, South Korea is one of the most polarized societies. I am talking about progressive versus the conservative is no different from America when it comes to polarization. It [has] especially exacerbated in the past, you know, five or six years. And also America is one of the most networked countries, but the fundamental question is why the United States is perceived, maybe actually, to be degenerating into political chaos, with no point of consensus, or rather dissonance? But in South Korea, according to some kind of global ranking of a functioning, liberal democracy, South Korea is a thriving exemplar of a networked, divided but collective in terms of consensus building? So I want to know a little bit about your, you know, expertise. 

Thorsten Quandt  55:40

I am not sure whether I have a quick solution for that, if I would have a quick solution to that probably, states would hire me and pay me a lot of money to solve these issues. But I think one answer to that is kind of It proves the principle. Because basically, we were expecting online media, and then specific technological tools and tools for communication to solve a lot of problems magically. And, you know, we were looking at the options, at things that you could do with that without thinking about the people, you know. Are people really motivated to use online media for being a good citizen? No, a lot of people weren't motivated to do that. They were motivated to, I don't know, drink a beer, watch television, you know, and do things like they do. They didn't want to be the savior of democracy. And other people were much more motivated, you know, people with probably other motives, you know, that weren't as friendly. And they had much more motivation to actually use these tools for something else. So I think one part of the answer would be that the technological options not do not necessarily lead to a situation in society that we want to have, and that we had as a prognosis, you know, on the basis of our normative ideas of how society should look like. And I think it also proves that being networked does not necessarily mean that you still can talk to each other. Because talking to each other doesn't mean, you know, just that there's a communication channel you actually have to use it, right? And if you look at the the way how people are using media, it's very, how do you say that, is that a word, compartmentalised? As, you know, in little pockets. And we see that in many countries, that it's getting more and more divisive, and people are using the media of their specific group. I think that's true for the US where a lot of people, you know, use either CNN or Fox News. And I would, you know, say, if you're interested in democracy, actually, you should use both. You should actually, even if you're a Democrat, you should watch Fox News to learn about the opinion of the other people and vice versa. And I think that's one thing that we that there needs to be some, like a renewal of democracy, you know, understanding that this principle is precious. And that the discussion that the debate in the society is actually what makes our society a democratic society. And again, this is not a given, it's not being networked in the sense of technological options or being close to each other. But it's actually listening to the other person and actually allowing the other person to speak, I think, in a way, and somehow we forgot the principal.

Speaker 3  58:27

Hi, thank you. Um, I am wondering about, so in dark participation, you wrote about how social media sites like Twitte--and you use Donald Trump as an example--but how they create a space for people to kind of bypass journalism, and kind of question the idea of professionalized news production by journalistic institutions. And then, just like this morning, Elon Musk tweeted: A beautiful thing about Twitter is how it empowers citizen journalism. People are able to disseminate news without an establishment bias. And so I'm kind of wondering whether and how you think Elon Musk taking over Twitter, and coming in with that kind of mindset, will impact dark actors and dark participation?

Thorsten Quandt  59:18

Yeah. Elon Musk, that's a very interesting topic. I wasn't expecting to discuss Elon Musk, right. But um, yeah, I mean, there are many facets to that. So one thing is, so I was . . . On my last sabbatical, I was in Stanford, actually. So I know a few of these people. I did interviews also with people at Facebook, Twitter, and so on. Also very high up there. And the interesting thing is that I think many people there in the Silicon Valley are kind of puzzled by this whole thing, democracy as well. You know, how it works. And if you see their development, I mean, we have people like Larry Page, and so on. I mean, they were a kind of student assistants, like, 20 years ago or so. And now they're some of the richest people in the world leading a company that basically is a central part of the communicative infrastructure of the planet. Right. And they didn't have a democratic training in the meantime or anything, you know. They actually got the tools. And now, states aren't responsible for that. But, you know, private companies, basically, in many ways, like Facebook, you know, like Google and so on. And I think they're also struggling with that, because I know there's, you know, they have their internal like, kind of government that is deciding on what they do with the medium. I've been part of some of these meetings, actually. And so they are also deciding what information gets through, what is kind of not getting through, what is censored in a way. Which is very often not actually based on democracy, but based on you know, can you do that in country A without being sued? And also, can you do it without violating some rules and regulations in that country, like, for example, nakedness, and so on. So, I think that you know, about that case in, I think it was a Swedish newspaper that was publishing that picture of this naked girl in the Vietnam War, and was basically found by the algorithm of Facebook, and you couldn't see it. And it's a historic photo. And actually, in the US, nakedness would be very problematic. Whereas in Sweden, actually, it was the opposite, because they say, basically, this is censoring historic information on the basis of a moral principle that is not actually inherent to our country, right? So depending on the country where you are, you have different regulations and different ideas of how democracy works. So it's really difficult for them also, I would say, you know. It's not just that you have to blame them. 

Thorsten Quandt  59:43

On the other hand, I think nobody voted for them in the way of saying, you know, I want them to control the communication of the planet, it's not that they're democratically enabled. And personally, I remember a time when these companies were not existing, right, and they didn't have the power they have these days. And I think that's something to consider: how much power should be in the hands of one person and how much power that one person should have over communication processes and democratic principles. And I find that a big issue. And not everybody in the Silicon Valley is, you know, thinking really hard about that. So I'm not sure how hot Elon Musk thinks about what he does to democracy or not, or whether he thinks about something else, you know. Nnot sure whether it's an answer, but an attempt at an answer. 


Thorsten Quandt  1:02:41

There's just one thing, maybe I should mention that there's one thing that is really relevant these days. And this is the impact of algorithms. And that is something we should be much more aware of as societies, because that's not intentional by these companies. They don't want to polarize society. But the principle of algorithmic optimization that you have in these media actually contributes to polarization. Because you get more of the same. If you have, you know, your communication in social media, what they actually give to you is more of what you actually already did before and what you actually were interested in, which is very close to what you always do and what you always were interested in. And that actually contributes to this living in a in a certain information bubble. Right? And I think that is something we should also work on. I was once at Google and proposed to them--they didn't like that idea.--but I proposed to them that you should actually introduce some kind of element of surprise, right? And to actually have contrasting information instead of information that is actually in line with your expectations. That would actually be helpful for democracy, you know, if, yeah, I think in a way, I mean, I'm not American, but in a way, if Democrats would be getting more information from you know, Republicans and vice versa I'm not sure what would happen, you know. Maybe that would change their opinion about the others in a way. But it doesn't work if you live in your bubble, and actually, you basically make the others the enemy. And if an algorithm contributes to that.

Thorsten Quandt  1:04:09

Wonderful. Well, thank you, Thorsten, for your presentation. And please join me in thanking our special guests this evening. 

Thorsten Quandt  1:04:14

Thank you.