This article originally appeared in the Deccan Herald. An excerpt is reproduced here.
Intentions as well as consequences are important in the information ecosystem.
In July, an anonymous Twitter handle that purportedly offers ‘unpopular unapologetic truths’ distastefully advised its male followers to “only marry virgins”. A quick Twitter search suggests that this wasn’t the first time this account had engaged in such rhetoric, it wasn’t the last either – but on this particular occasion it broke out from its regular set of followers to garner wider attention.
Understandably, there was outrage. Some of the account’s past content was called out, regular followers of the account were called out, both the tweets in question and the account were reported in unison by multiple users and more. However, two days later the account itself declared victory stating that interest in its content had increased and ‘weak’ followers had been cleared out.
Earlier in the year, efforts by the campaign ‘Stop Funding Hate’ led to a movie streaming service, a business school and an ad-network excluding a far-right Indian website from their ad programs. However, the website itself claimed an increase in voluntary contributions ‘upto 700 per cent’ and also stated that there was no drop in advertising revenues.
And in an ongoing instance, in late August, a news anchor tweeted out a ‘teaser’ video of an upcoming series that claimed it would unearth a conspiracy enabling minorities to occupy a disproportionate number of civil services posts in the country. An indicative analysis, using the tool Hoaxy, seemed to show that a lot of the initial engagement came from tweets that were meant to call out the nature of the content via quote tweets.
Often, many of these accounts had a large number of followers themselves.
Around the same time, an analysis by Kate Starbird, an eminent crisis informatics researcher, showed a misleading tweet by Donald Trump spreading “much farther” through quote tweets than through retweets. She also pointed out that a lot of the early quote tweets were critical in nature and calling on the platform to take action.
While the matter of this particular series itself is sub judice, let’s focus on the days just after the tweet in question. In four days, the anchor’s follower count had grown nearly five per cent. In the ensuing period there have also been multiple hashtag campaigns professing their support both for the anchor and channel.
What is common in each of these situations is that efforts to call out problematic content may have inadvertently benefitted the content creators by galvanising their supporters (in-group), propagating the content on digital platforms (algorithmic reward) and perhaps even recruiting new supporters who were inclined to agree with the content but are only choosing to participate as a result of the amplification and/or perceived attacks against their points-of-view or beliefs (disagreement with the out-group).