School of Communications and Multimedia Studies hosts event on disinformation from political celebrities

Rebecca Lewis, a Stanford Graduate Fellow and Ph.D candidate in Communication at Stanford University, discussed the importance of understanding the power of amplification through thriving alternative media platforms.


Eston Parker III

Photo by Eston Parker III.

Richard Pereira, Sports Editor

The School of Communications and Multimedia Studies hosted an event on Zoom called “How Political Celebrities Spread Disinformation” on Tuesday, Oct. 13.

Around 90 people attended the event as they listened to the main panelist Rebecca Lewis, a Stanford Graduate Fellow and Ph.D candidate in Communication at Stanford University. 

According to the event poster, Lewis believes that “instead of merely focusing our responses on the threat of algorithmic ‘rabbit holes,’ we must also understand the power of amplification through thriving alternative media platforms.”

Gerald Sim, associate professor of the school, said prior to the event that it was part of the Critical Conversation series the school is having as it “aims to feature topics that are topical, important, and relevant to Communication Studies and Multimedia Studies majors.”

“We thought of hosting Rebecca Lewis because of her research accomplishments in the area of politics and digital media technology, and because of her established profile as a public intellectual,” Sim said. “We asked her to talk about her current research, and she suggested a topic that as expected, is perfect for the series.”

Lewis began the event with a presentation of the topics she planned to go over, one of them notably pointing out four people who propped up the Great Replacement theory, a white nationalist conspiracy theory that states that elites are using immigration and other demographic shifts to replace white citizens of a given country with people of color. Those people are the Christchurch shooter, neo-Nazi and white supremacist Jason Kessler, founder of Turning Point USA Charlie Kirk, and Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

After listing those four men, Lewis clarified to say that she’s not bringing them up to make a statement about the current state of the Republican Party and its relationship to white nationalism, to say they all have the same views on every issue, or that social media platforms should treat these formats’ content the same. What she’s trying to do is to “illustrate the genuine methodological challenges that arise when we attempt to draw direct lines between categories.”

“When the empirical data doesn’t give us any existence that these clear lines exist, in fact, the blurring of these boundaries fundamentally challenges the conception that a person has to be incrementally brought down a rabbit hole by an algorithm to be exposed to extremist or supremacist content,” Lewis said. “They don’t even have to go on YouTube; while a lot of Fox News clips are indeed posted to YouTube, a person can also find Tucker Carlson by merely turning on their TV and a college student can find Charlie Kirk and his colleagues leading events on their college campuses.”

As the panel opened up the room for everyone to ask questions after Lewis concluded her presentation, she said when it comes to fighting against disinformation is to have more fact-checking that can clean up the information environment.

“Conspiracy theories, more generally, are notoriously quite impossible to fact-check because what they do is form this closed-loop world and reasoning which any fact that you present to them gets folded in as an example of just how deeply brainwashed you’ve been by the mainstream [media] or by the cover-up,” Lewis said. “There’s a way that they become completely insulated from any fact-checking efforts. We need to understand the deeply social and people-oriented sense of how this works.”  

Explaining how far-right groups recruit new members, Lewis said that they use technology to their advantage as they bring people to a social network and community where everyone believes in the same ideas.

“I think celebrity culture on social media is important because it’s allowing for that to happen at a broadcast scale,” Lewis said. “You come to feel like you’re friends with a celebrity. Even with the knowledge that you actually don’t know them, there’s still that sense of social connection there.”

Lewis believes that no matter how unstable an underlying assumption is, it’s that these ideas spread people’s fame through the power of amplification.

“I think that it’s important for us to shift how we think about YouTube, and maybe move a little bit away from focusing so much on this rabbit hole metaphor, and shift a bit more to thinking about how things spread,” Lewis said. “They’re not just sitting in these dark corners of the internet because they’re spreading everywhere.”

To watch the recording of the event in its entirety, click here.

Richard Pereira is the Sports Editor for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @Rich26Pereira.