What kind of narratives on Covid-19 are spread on dark platforms like Gab and 8kun? Which kind of actors are active and what sources are cited? In the interview Jing Zeng talks about her current research and whether it is a good idea that conspiracy theorists are banned from mainstream platforms likeTwitter and Facebook.
Ms. Zeng, in a recent study you focused on Covid-19-related conspiracy theories on dark platforms. What does „dark platform“ mean exactly?
These kinds of platforms are usually called ‘alternative social media’ or ‘fringe social media’. Personally I am not happy with these terms, because they often come with a negative connotation and they emphasize a dichotomy between the mainstream and the alternative. I wanted to introduce a concept that is not so ‘black and white’ or normatively charged. I want to use this concept of dark platforms for platforms which are kind of under the radar of the authorities and the general public. There could be something ‘shady’ going on but not necessarily evil.
In my research I mostly focus on problematic, toxic communication. But in my paper I made it very clear that dark platforms can also be used for positive causes. In authoritarian political contexts, such as China, dark platforms are used by activists to spread information that are censored on mainstream social media. In the West, Twitter is ‘mainstream’ but in China it belongs to the dark spectrum. So „dark platform“ is not a fixed category. What is considered ‘dark’ and how a ‘dark’ platform is, depends on the context in which it is operating.
In your study you focused on Gab, a micro-blogging service launched in 2016 and on 8kun, an anonymous imageboard. What kind of platforms are they?
These two platforms are very different. Gab, I would say, is the darker alternative to Twitter. To a large extent, it is a byproduct of Twitter’s recent large scale cracking down on perceived problematic users following Twitter’s, as well as other social media’s, de-platforming of alt-right or far-right conservatives and conspiracy theorists, Gab seized the opportunity to attract these individuals to form a new congregation on its platform.
In your paper you use the term digital refugee. What does that mean?
I use that term to describe individuals whose profile or voices have been removed from dominant mainstream social media platforms. Some of them voluntarily migrated to dark platforms because their messages have been constantly removed or reported. Lots of them are conspiracy theorists or individuals with extreme political stances. But in other contexts digital refugee can simply mean that this person is an activist for progressive causes. In China for example feminist activists are becoming members of this refugee group, because they are facing a lot of crack downs and censorship.
How did you get the idea to focus on conspiracy theories on Gab and 8kun?
Which kind of data did you analyze?
In this study I was focusing on Covid-19-related posts. For Gab we searched for hashtags including #covid19, #coronavirus, #chinavirus and #wuhanvirus. In total, we collected 30.000 gabs published between January and July 2020. On 8kun I focused on a board that was created for QAnon followers. There is an external source where you can do keyword research on that board. With the keyword „covid” we collected more than 30000 posts that were published between February and July 2020.
What kind of conspiracy theory related content did you discover?
The first one is „hoax narratives“ which deny the existence or the severity of the virus. The second one is the „bio engineer narrative“, that says Covid-19 is a bio weapon developed in China or in USA. Also the „anti-vaccination“ narrative is prominent. People who believe in it say for example that the pandemic is part of a mass-vaccination plot by big pharma to makehuge profits. The fourth most prevalent narrative is „5G-related“. Conspiracy theorists are saying for example that 5G assists or activates the spread of Covid-19.
What did you find out about the actors?
Did you get any other surprising results?
Not surprising but very interesting is the contestation of conspiracy theorists among themselves. In the media it is often assumed that a lot of conspiracy theorists support the idea of the 5G theory. But based on our empirical study, 5G related theories are often labelled as ‘crazy ideas’ even amongst conspiracy theorists. At least in our data it is the least popular narrative when people talk about Covid-19. Conspiracy theorists debunk or verify each other a lot. This implies that it is important to not consider conspiracy theorists as a unitary group.
You also analyzed which kind of external sources are cited and shared on the two platforms. What did you find out?
We often think that conspiracy theorists do not use legacy media and scientific sources. But based on our analysis for example on 8kun a large number of external sources are actually from prestigious science publications and mainstream news channels like BBC and CNN. On Gab we also see the of use of scientific and official governmental references a lot.
When it comes to the implications of your study: What does it mean for science communication or platform regulation?
One aim of this paper was to respond to the trend of putting pressure to big tech companies like Facebook and Twitter to remove conspiracy theory supporters. They are pushed to kick them out of the scene as if that is the solution to the problem. My concern is that this will further polarize conspiracy theorists and further marginalize these groups.
Would it be a better strategy to keep them on Twitter and Facebook?
It is hard to say if that would be better. From the perspective of the tech companies, who are under a lot of pressure to regulate their platforms, to simply wipe conspiracy theorists out is definitely an easy solution. However, as shown in our study, to be ‘de-platformed’ by mainstream social media can sometimes bring conspiracy theorists more social capital. For instance, Alex Jones uses the label of ‘the most banned person on the internet’ to attract more followers and to gain credibility.
In some circumstances, de-platforming can be very important. On Youtube, for example, conspiracy theorists can make advertising revenue from videos they uploaded. This incentivizes them to create and propagate more conspiracy theory-related videos. In this case, it is important to prevent individuals from monetizing conspiracy theory content, that means to demonetizing conspiracy theory channels.