The manipulated society: Research findings on the content, actors and effects of online propaganda

The manipulated society: Research findings on the content, actors and effects of online propaganda.

Presentation by Dr. Thorsten Quandt, Professor and Chair of Online Communication at the University of Munster.

Moderator: Oscar Westlund, professor, Department of Journalism and Media Studies, OsloMet - Oslo Metropolitan University.

The presentation is part of the OsloMet Digital Journalism Focus Seminars, organised by the research group Digital Journalism.


In recent years, the debate on social media use and other participatory formats (for example in online journalism)has changed dramatically: While user engagement was regarded to be a positive development somewhat more than a decade ago, it now seems as if the Internet is an unfriendly place, full of hate and populist interventions. While these negative descriptions are largely overstated in light of an abundance of research in the field, it still has become obvious that indeed, numerous groups try to strategically influence the online debate for their own interests.

These groups typically act in covert way, disguising their identity or goals, and in general, they are trying to alter the perception of majorities and group opinions. Anecdotal evidence and press coverage point to various actors, like companies and firms, religious and right-wing political actors, ideologically extreme groups (conspiracy theorists etc.) and even nations states. While the former follow primarily economic goals (which has been covered under the label “astroturfing” or “black hat marketing”), the others often have political and ideological motives with the goal of changing open democracies and their functioning. While the latter groups’ actions triggered a lot of public interest and recent research activities, empirical findings are still scarce.

In an on-going large-scale project funded by the German Ministry of Research, we focus such political and ideological forms of online propaganda. The project includes partners from information systems, cyber Security and communication research, as well as industry partners from journalism (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Spiegel). In the project, we focus on hidden propaganda that primarily uses social media channels (like Facebook or Twitter) or piggy-backs on journalistic forums, so we deliberately exclude cloaked websites or related forms of online communication where the actors directly and fully control the propaganda channel. In short, the Focus of our project is on sinister forms of ‘parasitic’ propaganda.

Main sub-projects include content analyses of Twitter, Facebook and journalistic forums, as well as interviews and surveys with journalists and online users. Furthermore, the project has a strong method development component, as the large-scale Twitter tracking and the content analysis of the Spiegel Online Forum (the biggest in Germany) require automated or semiautomated forms of content analysis, including sentiment analysis, topic modeling, named entity recognition, and other forms of text classification and natural language processing.

In the presentation, I will offer insight into some of the empirical findings of this project, primarily with regards to the role of journalism. For the survey part, I will focus on questions like: How do journalists perceive this form of manipulation? Do that have day-to-day experience, and if so, how do they cope with the issue? With respect to the content analyses, I will answer question like: Is there proof for the actions of propagandist groups? Can we track their actions in the material, and if so, what kind of interventions can we find there? If there is interest, I will also comment on ways to do this type of work using computer support and automated content analysis.


Prof. Dr. Thorsten Quandt, Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Münster. He was holding the Chair of Online Communication and Interactive Media at the University of Hohenheim from 2009-2012, where he also served as the Director of the Institute of Communication Studies in 2012. From 2007-2008, he was an Assistant Professor of journalism research at the Free University Berlin, where he also served as a Guest Professor in 2006.

Furthermore, he has been working as a lecturer and researcher at various other universities, including the LMU Munich, the Berlin University of the Arts, and the Technical University Ilmenau. He was also a visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford and Stanford University, and a visiting scholar at the Indiana University, Bloomington. He has (co)published more than 100 scientific articles and several books.

His work was awarded with several scientific prizes, including various Top Paper Awards and the dissertation award of the DGPuK. He’s currently an Associate Editor of the Journal of Communication, and an Executive Board Member of ECREA. His research and teaching fields include online communication, media innovation research, digital games and journalism.