Disinformation-for-Hire and Click Farming around the World: Identities, Incentives, Infrastructures

Journal issue, 15. October 2021.

*Call for Papers*

*Special Issue of Social Media + Societ <http://journals.sagepub.com/home/sms> (Open Access Journal)*

*Abstract submission deadline: October 15, 2021*

*Full paper submission deadline: March 1, 2022*

*Special Issue Editors: */Rafael Grohmann (Unisinos University, Brazil) and Jonathan Corpus Ong (University of Massachusetts-Amherst, USA)/

From state-sponsored propagandists using paid troll armies, to commercially motivated data analytics firms selling their toolkits to politicians, and platform workers producing memes for overseas clients, the global industry of disinformation production has only professionalized and diversified. This special issue for /Social Media + Society/ aims to deepen understanding about the social identities, work arrangements, and political and commercial motivations of an emerging class of digital disinformation workers. We are interested in critical and interdisciplinary research that examines the political economy, specifically the digital and creative industries that propel and produce disinformation.

The special issue’s focus on business models and disinformation worker identities in global context aims to expand on disinformation studies’ analysis of “fake news” and hate speech as content that require better policing or fact-checking. It also aims to expand platform studies’ research agenda and consider the range of digital professionals and entrepreneurs who buy and sell engagement on social media–with pernicious political consequences especially in contexts where dissenting voices are suppressed.

Thus, we solicit submissions that discuss the diverse worker hierarchies and conditions, outsourced gig arrangements, money politics, and/or regulatory loopholes in the promotional industries that enable the strategic production of disinformation. We are interested in interdisciplinary and ethnographic research that engages with the deep stories of workers in “dark PR” firms (Silverman, Lytyvenko & Kung 2020; Verwey & Muir 2019), data analytics firms (Briant 2021), Latin American and Indonesian Instagram click farms (Lindquist 2021), and “propaganda secretary” offices (Hassan & Hitchen 2019). We are also interested in normative discussions about complicity and collusion in digital industries as well as scholarly self-reflection about the challenges of doing engaged research about disinformation (Ong 2020).

We are especially interested in submissions that shed light across these themes:

  * ethnographic portraits of paid trolls, meme producers, and political
  * precarity, aspiration, and the tactics of resistance of digital
    workers / disinformation producers
  * the ethics of representing perpetrators; whistleblowers as
    unreliable narrators
  * participatory disinformation (Starbird 2021) and networked
  * the infrastructure, materiality, and “platform trees” (van Dijck
    2020) of click farm platforms with mainstream social media
  * moral justifications of disinformation producers (Ong & Cabañes 2019)
  * the complicity of advertising and public relations to “organized
    lying” (Edwards 2021)
  * legitimacy, respectability, and plausible deniability; the role of
    intermediaries or brokers in the disinformation industries
  * mental health of workers in digital shadow economies
  * the social proximities between content moderators and paid trolls in
    the global South
  * regulatory loopholes in political marketing and PR; experiments with
    self-regulation and codes of ethics in digital campaigning (Udupa 2019)
  * auto-ethnographic reflections of engaged scholars about their
    experiences working with governments, platforms, workers, and
    journalists to shed light on disinformation shadow economies

The special issue will include an interview with ProPublica's Craig Silverman and a response to the contributions from Dr Joan Donovan.


300- to 500-word abstracts should be emailed to rafaelgrohmann@unisinos.br and jcong@umass.edu by October 15, 2021. The abstract should articulate: 1) the issue or research question to be discussed, 2) the methodological or critical framework used, and 3) the expected findings or conclusions. Feel free to consult with the Special Issue Editors about your article ideas and potential angles or approaches.

Decisions will be communicated to the authors by November 1, 2021. Full papers of the selected abstracts should be submitted by March 1, 2022.

There is no article processing fee for this special issue.


Briant, E. (2021). Lessons from the Cambridge Analytica Crisis: Confronting Today’s (Dis)information Challenges. /The Journal of Intelligence, Conflict, and Warfare/, 3(3), 125–127. https://doi.org/10.21810/jicw.v3i3.2775

Edwards. L. (2021). Organised Lying and Professional Legitimacy: Public Relations’ Accountability in the Disinformation Debate. /European Journal of Communication/, 36(2), 168–182. https://doi.org/10.1177/0267323120966851

Hassan, I. & Hitchen, J. (2019, April 18). Nigeria’s Propaganda Secretaries. /Mail & Guardian/. https://mg.co.za/article/2019-04-18-00-nigerias-propaganda-secretaries/

Lindquist, J. (2021). Good Enough Imposters: The Market for Instagram Followers in Indonesia and Beyond. In: Woolgar, S. et al (eds). /The Imposter as Social Theory: Thinking with Gatecrashers, Cheats and Charlatans. /Bristol University Press.

Ong, J.C. (2020). "Limits and Luxuries of Slow Research in Times of Radical War: How Should We Represent Perpetrators?" /Journal of Digital War /1(1): 1-6.

Ong, J. C., & Cabañes, J. V. A. (2019). When Disinformation Studies Meets Production Studies: Social Identities and Moral Justifications in the Political Trolling Industry. /International Journal of Communication/, /13/, 5771–5790.

Silverman, C., Lytyvenko, J. & Kung, W. (2020, January 6). Disinformation for Hire: How a New Breed of PR Firms Is Selling Lies Online. /Buzzfeed News/. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/craigsilverman/disinformation-for-h...

Starbird, K. (2021, May 6). Participatory Disinformation: The Big Lie during the 2020 Election and the January 6, 2021 Attack on the US Capitol. Twitter thread. https://twitter.com/katestarbird/status/1390408145428643842

Udupa, S. (2019, January 31). India Needs a Fresh Strategy to Tackle Online Extreme Speech. /Engage/. https://www.epw.in/engage/article/election-2019-india-needs-fresh-strate....

Van Dijck, J. (2020) Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Visualizing Platformization and Its Governance. /New Media & Society/, 1-19. Online First.

Verwey, S., & Muir, C. (2019). Bell Pottinger and the Dark Art of Public Relations: Ethics of individuality Versus Ethics of Communality. /Communicare: Journal for Communication Sciences in Southern Africa/, /38/(1), 96-116.