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Some Thoughts about Internet Research and Networked Publics

Also in connection with the AoIR 2017 conference last week, I answered a few questions about the field of Internet research, and the conference, for the University of Tartu magazine. Here is what I had to say:

What are the major challenges in Internet research?

The central challenge is the object of research itself. The nature of the platforms, content, communities, and practices that constitute 'the' Internet is constantly and rapidly in flux – we are dealing with platforms like Snapchat that didn't exist ten years ago, and with practices like 'fake news' that were nowhere near as prominent even two years ago as they are now. This necessarily means that research methods, approaches, frameworks, and concepts must change with them, and that the toolkits we used to understand a particular phenomenon a few years ago may no longer produce meaningful results today. But at the same time we must beware a sense of ahistoricity: 'fake news', for example, does have precedents that reach back to way before the digital age, and we can certainly still learn a lot from the research that studied propaganda and misinformation in past decades and centuries.

Twitter Bots and Hate Speech in Persian Gulf Countries

The next speaker in this AoIR 2017 session is Mark Owen Jones, whose focus is on social media propaganda in Persian Gulf states. Overall, there is still a considerable lack of research into social media propaganda in Arabic; in Gulf states, there is a long history of 'fake news' in social media, and hate speech towards particular groups, ethnicities, and countries is not uncommon. Hate speech may be operationalised by ruling autocrats as a tool to divide and rule the population; different religious groups are allowed to attack each other, to keep them from uniting and toppling the government.

Connective 'Alt-Right' Action on Reddit

The next speaker in this AoIR 2017 session is Alex Hogan, whose focus is on the impact of online political communities in politics. There is still considerable debate on whether online action promotes or retards other forms of collective action offline; the recent rise of the 'alt-right' adds another chapter to this discussion.

Computational Propaganda around the World

I arrived late to the final AoIR 2017 session on computational propaganda, and I think it's Samantha Bradshaw speaking at the moment. She's presenting the overall Computational Propaganda project at the University of Oxford, which from secondary source research identified some 23 countries that were known to be using some kind of informational warfare online at this stage.

Media Coverage of the Port Arthur and Lindt Café Shootings

The next speaker at AoIR 2017 is Catherine Son, who examines the role of digital publics in Australian print media practices. In 1996, for instance, when the Port Arthur massacre took place, many of the digital publics that were in evidence during the 2015 Lindt Café siege in Sydney, and a review of these two events of national significance serves to highlight the evolution of the Australian media ecology over these twenty years.

Selfie Protests and the Creation of a Shared Sense of Identity

The post-lunch session at AoIR 2017 starts with Giovanni Boccia Artieri, whose interest is in the #selfieprotest phenomenon. Overall, online and social media platforms are playing an increasing role in protest movements, of course, and one of the challenges here is to find some of the boundaries of the public sphere that emerges through this, as well as to trace the dynamics of engagement in these spaces.

Counterpublics in Italian Facebook Discussions of Alternative Medicine

The final speaker in this AoIR 2017 session on 'fake news' is Fabio Giglietto, whose focus is on the discussion and dissemination of fake medical news on Facebook. In January 2016, the Italian public affairs TV show Presa Diretta covered alternative cancer treatments in a highly critical way, and further discussed these matters on its Facebook page; the present project examined the debate that ensued. This ties to broader concerns about public distrust in conventional medicine, and the online promotion of alternative treatments.

Bots in the U.K.'s Brexit Referendum

The next speaker in this AoIR 2017 session is Marco Bastos, whose focus is on the Brexit referendum. He notes that a substantial number of bots were active in the Brexit debate on Twitter, yet many of these accounts disappeared immediately after the referendum. But it is also important to distinguish between different bots: there are legitimate bot developers that offer such accounts, while genuine, highly active users are sometimes also misidentified as bots.

The Discursive Institutionalisation of 'Fake News' in Germany

The third speaker in this AoIR 2017 session is Kirsten Gollatz, whose focus is on the institutionalisation of the 'fake news' controversy in Germany. The debate on 'fake news' there continues, and the term itself is controversial; it has now entered the German dictionary, but nonetheless remains ill-defined. There is an ongoing renegotiation of the norms, rules, and responsibilities of the various relevant actors in this context.

NATO's View of 'Fake News' and Related Information Activities

The next session at AoIR 2017 is a panel on 'fake news', and begins with Giorgio Bertolin, from NATO (!). 'Fake news' is also an issue for NATO as a military alliance, of course, and NATO is about to publish a report on the issue that is called Digital Hydra. The focus is on exploring activities across different platforms, examining the role of blogs, and studying 'fake news' sites.

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