The Life Cycle Method for Understanding Media Manipulation and Disinformation
The media manipulation life cycle (MMLC) forms the basis of the Casebook, giving a common framework for journalists, researchers, technologists, and members of civil society to understand the origins and impacts of disinformation and its relation to the wider information ecosystem.1 Situated in the emerging field of Critical Internet Studies,2 this research methodology combines social science and data science to create a new framework for studying sociotechnical systems and their vulnerabilities.3
The means for documenting case studies require a variety of methods that span quantitative analysis, content analysis, network mapping, and ethnographic studies. As such, a variety of indicators from different sources (e.g., commercial threat reporting, platform reporting, independent research, investigative journalism, public statements, website scraping) will be used to triangulate the findings. In addition, each case study will vary in the methods used to detect and document the operations, depending on the availability of evidence. Where original research and analysis was undertaken, source material will be presented and cited.
For more information on the life cycle model, selection criteria, coding process, and research methods, please refer to our code book and our primer on investigative digital ethnography.
The Media Manipulation Life Cycle
Each case is written according to the five stages defined in the MMLC, allowing researchers to analyze the order, scale, and scope of the campaign in question, as well as the actors involved, platforms used, vulnerabilities (both social and technical) exploited, and outcomes.
Stage 1: Manipulation campaign planning and origins
The first stage documents the origins or planning stage of a campaign and is generally limited to conversations by a small group of operators or campaign participants, who develop narratives, images, videos, or other material to be spread online as “evidence.” In effect, Stage 1 details the intended strategies, tactics, and goals of the campaign.
Stage 2: Seeding the campaign across social platforms and web
Stage 2 documents the tactics and relevant materials used to execute the campaign. In other words, this stage details the dissemination and propagation of content relevant to the operation.
Stage 3: Responses by industry, activists, politicians, and journalists
After content has been seeded, the campaign moves on to Stage 3, which documents how actors and organizations outside the campaign (e.g., civil society organizations, politicians, political parties, mainstream media outlets) react. The third stage of the operation is usually a turning point indicating whether the campaign was effective in gaining attention via amplification or if it led to another observable outcome.
Stage 4: Mitigation
The fourth stage of a manipulation campaign documents actions by tech companies, government, journalists, or civil society to mitigate the spread of a campaign’s content, messaging, and effects.
Stage 5: Adjustments by manipulators to new environment
The fifth stage of a manipulation campaign involves how the operators and campaign participants adapt according to mitigation efforts described in Stage 4 and the resulting changes in the information ecosystem.
- 1. Joan Donovan, “The Life Cycle of Media Manipulation,” in The Verification Handbook 3, 2020, https://datajournalism.com/read/handbook/verification-3/investigating-disinformation-and-media-manipulation/the-lifecycle-of-media-manipulation.
- 2. Amelia Acker and Joan Donovan, “Data Craft: A Theory/Methods Package for Critical Internet Studies,” Information, Communication & Society 22, no. 11 (September 19, 2019): 1590–1609, https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2019.1645194.
- 3. Matt Goerzen, Elizabeth Anne Watkins, and Gabrielle Lim, “Entanglements and Exploits: Sociotechnical Security as an Analytic Framework,” in 9th USENIX Workshop on Free and Open Communications on the Internet (FOCI) (Santa Clara, CA, 2019), https://www.usenix.org/conference/foci19/presentation/goerzen.