Blog post

Three ways in which digital researchers can shed light on the information politics of the “post-truth” era

6 Feb 2017

Digital media played a prominent role in the recent US presidential election, with social media platforms channelling previously fringe universes of political culture, rooted in populism and post-truth politics, right into the mainstream of US political discourse. Meanwhile, traditional mechanisms, from polling to mainstream media, failed to adequately capture public sentiment around political events. Are new instruments needed to understand the socio-technical fabric of the post-truth political landscape? And what can digital researchers do to contribute? Liliana Bounegru outlines examples of approaches being developed at the Digital Methods Initiative that hope to assist digital researchers, data journalists, civil society groups and others looking to increase public understanding of these phenomena.

As Washington tradition dictates, inauguration eve saw a multitude of balls and galas where tuxedo and gown-clad Donald Trump supporters, donors, organisers and fundraisers gathered to acknowledge campaign efforts and celebrate victory. And while these events usually celebrate the efforts of those involved in raising campaign contributions, knocking on doors and organising rallies – this year saw the recognition of a different kind of political work to bring the golden-blonde billionaire to the White House. The “DeploraBall”, hosted by the National Press Club, a self-described “meeting of the trolls”, lauded mobilisations to “meme him into the presidency”. Elsewhere, the owner of a website that generated widely circulated fake news about the presidential election claimed that his site helped Trump get elected, with a BuzzFeed News investigation indicating that fake news did indeed generate more engagement than real news on Facebook.

These claims are illustrative of the prominent role that digital media has played in relation to the US presidential elections – both in practice and in the public imagination. Perhaps most distinctive are the ways in which social media platforms have acted as engines to channel previously fringe universes of political culture, rooted in right-wing populism and post-truth politics, into the mainstream of American politics.

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