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  • Martin Gagnon

When Mainstream Media Gets Duped

Recently, researchers Joan Donovan and Senior Researcher Brian Friedberg, both of the Harvard Kennedy School, published a report under the Data & Society’s Media Manipulation research initiative titled Source Hacking: Media Manipulation in Practice. Written to caution how the digital environment is used to create and disseminate misinformation to mainstream news media, they identified four specific techniques that they termed “source hacking.” Donovan and Friedberg defined source hacking as a “versatile set of techniques for feeding false information to journalists, investigators, and the general public during breaking news events or across highly polarized issues while concealing the source of information.”


The four techniques identified in the report were:


Viral Sloganeering – This is defined as the process of crafting divisive messages in the form of slogans and propagating these in an effort to force media coverage and provoke institutional responses. The report says that “It’s Okay to Be White” was started as a campaign on 4chan that was explicitly white supremacist in character. The anonymous author/s created a style sheet for people to follow to create and post flyers on college campuses with the slogan while attributing no authorship on the flyer or advertising any white supremacist websites or digital communities. A number of institutions, particularly those universities where the flyers were posted, were forced to respond when people expressed outrage. This caught the attention of the mainstream media who had now been manipulated to further amply the white supremacist leaning message.


Leak Forgery – This is defined as the process of forging documents that are then released by manipulators to the mainstream media.


Evidence Collages – Image files featuring a series of arranged screenshots and text that appear to provide evidence of a particular event or activity.


Keyword Squatting – The technique of creating social media accounts or content associated with specific terms to capture and control future search traffic.


While we often think of media literacy in terms of the news consumer, this report shows it is also an issue for the news creators.




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