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"Information Trolls and Democracy: A Qualitative Examination of Disinformation Campaigns in Canada" (by Rachelle Louden and Richard Frank): Review 1

Published onSep 27, 2023
"Information Trolls and Democracy: A Qualitative Examination of Disinformation Campaigns in Canada" (by Rachelle Louden and Richard Frank): Review 1

Vote: Publish pending minor changes

This paper presents important and timely qualitative research regarding how ‘fake news’ is presented in the Buffalo Chronicle. I agree with the authors that examinations of misinformation and disinformation (both nicely defined and elaborated in the paper) in the Canadian context are lacking research, and we need more qualitative examinations of this explicating both the whats and hows of strategies and techniques. Clearly, there is a craft, of sorts, to producing ‘fake news’ and this paper does well to highlight some of the more effective ones deployed in TBC. The choice of focusing the analysis on TBC is also well rationalized, given its likely sway in the last federal Canadian elections. The implications of misinformation for societal cohesion and trust in institutions are frequently underscored. The paper is well written, with very few typographical errors. My suggested minor revisions are threefold: 1 – linking up findings a bit more with more comprehensive scholarship, 2 – clarifying methodological approaches, and 3 – some minor formatting issues that made it a bit difficult to follow at times.

An important source to consider linking up findings to is Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism:

Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. New York: Public Affairs.

Zuboff, S. (2015). Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization. Journal of Information Technology, 30(1), 75-89.

There are also several good sources for technological affordances and algorithms, such as Beer’s work:

Beer, D. (2017). The social power of algorithms. Information, Communication & Society, 20(1), 1-13.

Beer, D. (2009). Power through the algorithm? Participatory web cultures and the technological unconscious. New Media & Society, 11(6), 985-1002.

These sources would be helpful to reference in the initial discussion of misinformation and how it spreads online, but especially in the discussion where legal responses and motivations are considered more explicitly. I’ve wrestled with how mis- and disinformation is conceptualized, or perhaps more with the epistemological challenges related to ascertaining these conceptualizations. From the perspective of those peddling fake news, many would not likely see themselves as actively trying to ‘dupe’ others. Hence, the charge of disinformation is likely a label projected from the outside, though equally likely neutralized within subcultural normative social circles. Also, on motive, no doubt there are challenges related to deducing culpability – is it the managing editor, individual journalist, the source as a whole, etc. – but algorithms and misinformation are pushed to users also due to broader structural dynamics of information communications technologies, linked to the broader corporate interests of big data; hence my recommendations above for more literature on this point.

Emotions: As I read a link to other research on cults came to mind, and perhaps more generally, hucksters and swindlers peddling false information, especially those with a religious angle. I’m thinking here of (in)famous celebrities who sell vials of healing water and other products of questionable effectiveness and who sometimes get called out for it, but – and the important point – people keep buying their product despite knowing it’s a scam. So emotions, I think, matter here and orient one’s interpretation of ‘rational’ information, and the role sociology of emotions may contribute to the analysis of misinformation is worth considering. Of course, we know the stories of Facebook manipulating user emotions to test certain content uptake. Page 7 has some content on this, but a bit more is warranted on wider scholarship on how emotions may work to reinforce in/out-group dynamics and act to reinforce the grooves established through algorithms and a return to this theme in the discussion.

Methodology: There is likely a good synergy between the qualitative content analysis and critical discourse analysis employed in the paper. That said, it may be prudent for the authors to consider one or the other. I’m not sold on their mutually exclusive differences, at least as explicated in the paper. Despite the detailed explanation, I still see much overlap, which may produce confusion for those who wish to take up a similar methodology for follow-up research. So on page 9: “content analysis goes beyond simply identifying themes and patterns within texts, it allows researchers to explore and better conceptualize the social realities that create these themes and patterns.” But if CDA were substituted in this sentence, I wonder if readers would object – CDA certainly is geared to highlight the broader social structural contexts mediating discourse, after all. On the next page, “Critical discourse analysis provokes researchers to examine the messages conveyed in the data within the context of broader historical, social, and political contexts.” Again very similar, surely, to how QCA is ‘sold’ as “beyond simply identifying themes.” I would argue that CDA is the more robust methodology of the two in terms of the goals here, especially if Zuboff’s work is incorporated. At times, only one approach is mentioned, such as on page 2: “Through employing a qualitative content analysis of articles published by…” neglecting mention of CDA.

Formatting: A general issue with formatting, at times, in the results, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the authors’ text and text quoted from sources. If longer passages are being quoted, simply indenting these and citing the source is essential.

Minor typographical errors:

In the abstract: “This research further also contends that there”

Page 6: “The use of TFD to interfere in democratic practices was a significant issue in recent U.S elections.”

Page 8: “…highlights the struggles of a group they sympathize with or a post the emphasizes the evil”

Page 15: “These three stories were shares 136,000 times combined.”

Page 17: “…what type of information has been purposefully crafted to be appeal to…”

Page 25: “In claiming that The Globe and Mail knew about sex allegations made against Trudeau, yet they never reported, it can encourage…”

Page 32: “interference, governments and non-[artisan media can play…”

Page 32: “…that are being presented by Russian forces about the current conflict in Ukraine and counter those narrative by publishing reliable information…”

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