How can we study disguised propaganda on social media? Some methodological reflections

(Johan Farkas & Jannick Schou, IT University Copenhagen, first published in Data Driven Journalism)

Fake news’ has recently become a seemingly ubiquitous concept among journalists, researchers, and citizens alike. With the rise of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, it has become possible to spread deliberate forms of misinformation in hitherto unforeseen ways. This has also spilled over into the political domain, where new forms of (disguised) propaganda and false information have recently begun to emerge. These new forms of propaganda have very real effects: they serve to obstruct political decision-making processes, instil false narratives within the general public, and add fuel to already heated sites of political conflict. They represent a genuine democratic problem.

Yet, so far, both critical researchers and journalists have faced a number of issues and challenges when attempting to understand these new forms of political propaganda. Simply put: when it comes to disguised propaganda and social media, we know very little about the actual mechanisms through which such content is produced, disseminated, and negotiated. One of the key explanations for this might be that fake profiles and disguised political agendas are incredibly difficult to study. They present a serious methodological challenge. This is not only due to their highly ephemeral nature, with Facebook pages being able to vanish after only a few days or hours, but also because of the anonymity of its producers. Often, we simply do not know who is disseminating what and with what purpose. This makes it difficult for us to understand and research exactly what is going on.

This post takes its point of departure from a new article published in the international academic journal New Media & Society. Based on the research done for this article, we want to offer some methodological reflections as to how disguised propaganda might be investigated. How can we research fake and disguised political agendas? And what methodological tools do we have at our disposal? 

Cloaked Facebook pages

Our article presents a case study of fake Islamist propaganda disseminated through so-called cloaked Facebook pages. These are Facebook pages in which the authorship is deliberately disguised in order to promote a particular political agenda. In this case, the pages we studied all claimed to represent Muslims living in Denmark seeking to overthrow the Danish society from within, kill and rape all Danes. Based on close to six months of online fieldwork, the article unpacks how 11 of these Facebook pages used fictitious Muslim identities in order to spark thousands of anti-Muslim reactions from Danish Facebook users. Created in 2015 against the backdrop of an already heated political climate in Denmark, these Facebook pages not only managed to deceive thousands of users, but also became sites of highly aggressive and often xenophobic sentiments against Muslims in general. What unfolded can best be described as an on-going spectacle of hostility, with cloaked pages being created on a rolling basis and inciting a tidal wave of hostile comments from Facebook users.

There are several reasons why these pages managed to continuously deceive large amounts of users. Seeing beneath their cloak was not always as easy as it might seem. No single aspect of each page would reveal it as a fraud. And taken as individual pages, there were no clear trigger warnings or tell-tale signs. Only by studying multiple pages over time, and carefully looking at how similar or even identical names, pictures, and texts were used across multiple pages, were we able to see the tightly knit web of disguised propaganda formed by these pages (see image below). Uncovering this web was difficult, as the pages only existed for short periods of time, ranging from a few weeks to a single day, before Facebook deleted them for violations of the company’s community standards. So how did we go about understanding and investigating these cloaked pages?

Image: Example of different pages (re)using the same content.

Finding disguised propaganda: some methodological tools

We admit that our study was not planned in advance. Rather, it was kick-started when we came across three highly similar Facebook pages in 2015. They all claimed to represent Muslims in Denmark seeking to overthrow the Danish society and kill all (ethnic) Danes. At first, we could not conclude with any certainty whether these identities were indeed fake, as no single aspect could reveal this. Nonetheless, there were some indications that these pages were not quite what they seemed. Intrigued, and horrified, by what we saw, we continued to collect data through observations, screenshots and data scraping (using Netvizz for the latter). Though we were not quite sure what was going on, we sought to document the events to the best of our ability, capturing as many details as we could along the way. 

Working with journalists

Over the course of the next few weeks, the initial indications we had picked up began to grow stronger. Something simply didn’t add up. Yet, it was only after we came in contact with a journalist from the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR), the biggest public service institution in Denmark, that we had a real breakthrough. Working parallel to our own investigation, journalists from DR had investigated the same three ‘Islamist’ Facebook pages and made several findings. One of these had to do with the supposed affiliation of these three ‘Islamist’ Facebook pages. All three pages contained a link to the Danish branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir – a Sunni Muslim political organisation know in Denmark for their controversial views on democracy. The journalists had contacted this organisation and found that they had no connection to the pages whatsoever; in fact, they had contacted Facebook to get them deleted. Extending these findings further, the journalists even found certain indications suggesting that two Danish far-right activists were behind the pages. When these activists were contacted, they denied any relation to the pages. Yet, soon thereafter, the pages were gone.

Working with activists

Driven by these initial findings, we spent the following weeks trying to actively investigate whether any new pages would emerge. Approximately one month later, in the beginning of June, we found another page, named Ali El-Yussuf. Ali El-Yussuf used highly similar and sometimes identical narratives about Muslims in Denmark conspiring to kill all non-Muslims. Within days, the page had received more than 3000 comments. After five days, the page was deleted, only to reappear on a new page using the very same name. This time, however, there was a significant turn of events. Users wanting to stop this form of disguised propaganda formed a counter-group to find and contest such pages. The group was named Stop Fake Hate Profiles on Facebook (STOP falske HAD-PROFILER på FACEBOOK) and they soon reached 1000 members, all collaborating to find and ‘report’ propaganda for violations of Facebook’s community standards. From the outset of this group, we were in close contact with its administrator. He agreed to contact us as soon as he heard of new ‘hate profiles’. At that point, we were not only a few researchers participating in the search, but had the support of more than 1000 Danish users collaborating to find and stop these pages. It goes without saying that this made our research efforts much more fruitful. After close to  six months of research, we had studied 11 Facebook pages receiving more than 20,000 comments and almost 8,000 shares from Danish Facebook users, many of whom believed in the proclaimed authorship and responded with hatred. 

Main takeaways

So, what are the important methodological takeaways from this project? At the very least, two main methodological advices spring to mind. First of all: collect as much data as you can in as many ways as possible. Make screenshots, take detailed written observations, use data scraping, and (if possible) participate in citizen groups. One of the most valuable resources we had at our disposal was the set of heterogeneous data we collected from each page. Using this allowed us to carefully dissect and retrace the complex set of practices involved in each page long after they were gone. While we certainly tried to be as systematic in our data collection as possible, we also had to use every tool at our disposal. And we had to constantly be on our toes. As soon as a page emerged, we were there: ready to write down notes and collect data.

Second: be willing to participate and collaborate. Our research showcases the immense potential in researchers (and journalists) actively collaborating with citizen groups and grassroots movements. Using the collective insights and attention of this group allowed us to quickly find and track down pages. It gave us renewed methodological strength. Collaborating across otherwise closed boundaries between research and journalism opens up new avenues for deeper and more detailed insights.

This research highlights the potential effectiveness and destructiveness of disguised propaganda in social media. And it points to a larger set of analytical, epistemological and methodological questions that are still left open. How widespread are these practices? How can we find better ways of identifying fake identities and (more importantly) finding their authors? How can we combat disguised propaganda more effectively? And how can we get social media companies to take action against this kind of manipulation? In pursuit of these pressing questions, the formation of new collaborations across research, journalism and citizen activism might provide one trajectory going forward.

Read the full research article here.