‘Do your own research’: affordance activation and disinformation spread

Francesca B. Tripodi, Lauren C. Garcia, Alice E. Marwick

Information, Communication & Society


(Research summary by Katherine Furl)

Technologies provide their users with a wide variety of different affordances, or all the things it is possible to accomplish through any given technology. Though researchers have considered the ways users’ actions are impacted by platform affordances, less research has focused on how technological affordances can be used in interactional, participatory ways. In “‘Do Your Own Research’: Affordance Activation and Disinformation Spread,” Francesca Tripodi, Lauren Garcia, and Alice Marwick consider how participation and interactions made possible through technological affordances are central to the spread of disinformation.  

Tripodi, Garcia, and Marwick reveal how the ability to ‘verify’ false claims through platform affordances allow users to collectively be involved in the spread of disinformation. The authors refer to these as instances of ‘affordance activation,’ where the capabilities of affordances are activated by users attempting to verify false claims. The authors present three cases of affordance activation in the spread of disinformation across three very different platforms: 

(1) claims on Twitter that conservatives are being silenced 

(2) the use of Google Scholar citations to legitimize pseudoscientific, white supremacist journals 

(3) QAnon participants’ use of Yandex, a Russian search engine, to validate a conspiracy claiming the US furniture company Wayfair is involved in human trafficking of children 

These three cases illustrate how users leverage platform affordances—whether they be Twitter hashtags, citation metrics on Google Scholar, or the lack of content moderation on Yandex compared to other popular search engines—to lend credibility to unsubstantiated claims and white supremacist and conspiratorial logics.   

Importantly, Tripodi, Garcia, and Marwick distance affordance activation from users’ intent as well as the overall legitimacy or veracity of their claims. Instead, the authors focus on technological capabilities and their outcomes. As the authors put it,  

“Engagement is less about the veracity of the claim and more about interacting with the affordance.” 

By actively participating with the unique affordances of different technological platforms, users are able to directly engage in the spread of disinformation in novel ways. As Tripodi, Garcia, and Marwick reveal through presenting three demonstrative cases of affordance activation, the potential implications of affordance activation are wide-reaching and vital to our understanding of how disinformation spreads and false claims are legitimized.