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    An examination of the role of images in the spread of disinformation on social media: The case of the Westminster Bridge photograph

    Guy, Hannah Victoria (2022) An examination of the role of images in the spread of disinformation on social media: The case of the Westminster Bridge photograph. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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    Abstract

    By deeply and intensely investigating how a high-profile and well-known example of visual disinformation evolved, the thesis contributes a nuanced understanding of the phenomenon of visual disinformation as it works to shape public debate and, consequently, society and the democratic process. This was achieved through the examination of the Westminster Bridge photograph, a press photograph taken in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in the UK. The photograph was shared on Twitter by an account operated by Russian’s Internet Research Agency and was verbally reframed with an Islamophobic message, thus changing its meaning. Yet, while mis-/disinformation is of significant academic interest and has seen a substantial increase in research from a range of different disciplines, the role of images is often overlooked despite a considerable amount of mis-/disinformation being visual. Therefore, the thesis works to highlight the power and persuasiveness of a press photograph, shared in the aftermath of a terrorist attack with opportunistic framing, to spread Islamophobic disinformation. Long-recognised theories of photographic representation with contemporary conceptualisations of disinformation are incorporated to establish an understanding of how this photograph functioned as disinformation. With the photograph’s journey across social and traditional media being the principal component that drives the research, a case study methodology was established. This involved collecting data from Twitter, online news, and focus groups with British Muslim women, accompanied by content, thematic, and semiotic analysis, to encapsulate the photograph’s evolution. The examination of this case shows how, when recontextualised and shared in a context that fosters anxiety and division, a photograph can snowball from an inconsequential, rarely shared press photograph to visual disinformation to news story. That the photograph used was a press photograph is significant; audiences treat such images as visual facts, so press photographs like this example can be used to ascribe truthfulness to the accompanying verbal message. Moreover, the thesis reinforces that visuals can be harmful vehicles for spreading mis-/disinformation, especially when images are recontextualised to elicit an emotional response. The evolution of the photograph across media also highlights the significant consequences of a foreign state actor meddling in domestic politics.

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