Recently, I enjoyed the opportunity to email interview Thorsten Quandt, professor and dean at the University of Münster in the Department of Communication, about his substantial work on "dark participation," a term he originated to describe the “bleak flip side” to selfless, democratically motivated participation in online media. Dr. Quandt is a primary investigator on such topics as disinformation on social media, digital games, participatory journalism, conspiracy theory, and online belief communities ("patchwork religions"), and how social issues emerge in our complex media environment.
Grant Hilary Brenner: What is "dark participation"?
Thorsten Quandt: Dark participation is marked by negative, selfish, or even deeply sinister contributions. I introduced this concept to challenge the normative—or, depending on one's viewpoint, utopian—idea of participation that was extremely popular in the early 2000s.
At that time, academics were very enthusiastic about online communication's potential, dreaming of a society where everyone would engage in democratic discourse. They viewed online communication as a potential “savior” for democracy and Western liberal ideals. The unrestricted flow of information, where everybody contributes, was even seen as a way to overthrow dictators and authoritarian regimes.
While this might sound naïve now, only a few scholars anticipated the rise of large-scale online hate or manipulation through fake content. Even fewer envisioned a scenario where said regimes would exploit a darker form of participation for their ends.
So this idealistic view of participation collided with the more complex realities of human nature and societal behaviors. Clearly, not everyone is motivated to participate, and when they do, their motivations often diverge from the altruistic desire to benefit democracy or the well-being of others.
GHB: Why is the concept of dark participation particularly timely now?
TQ: There's been an uptick in behaviors that deviate from the idealized notion of participation. Today, academics are deeply concerned about issues like toxicity, hate speech, incivility, fake news, and disinformation, seeing them as major threats to open, democratic societies. This perspective has become dominant in parts of media psychology, sociology, and communication studies. Dark participation encompasses a model that captures all these behaviors.
The model delineates the actors, motivations, targets, audiences, and process logics of dark participation. It has proven to be useful for scholars who want to integrate their research into an overarching theoretical concept. Unlike many models that focus on specific behaviors, this one ties back to broader social and communicative principles.
TQ: The “dark” in the term hints at a connection, and that is no coincidence. It is evident that dark personality traits can drive the behaviors described in the dark-participation framework. For example, those high in traits like Machiavellianism and psychopathy might instrumentally use online communication as a tool to manipulate others, and indeed, excel at doing so.
However, it's important not to oversimplify; some of the behaviors under the umbrella of dark participation serve a rational purpose from the perspective of the perpetrators and may even contribute to their personal well-being. Not all negative behaviors online are linked to dark personality traits. One does not have to be a sadist to humiliate others on the internet! In fact, it would be intriguing to reverse the research direction here and explore how these traits might lead to normatively positive forms of participation.
GHB: What common behaviors make up dark participation (trolling, gaslighting, misinformation/disinformation, and more)?
TQ: The dark participation model, as presented in the original publication, distinguishes between different actors, motivations, targets, audiences, and process logics. So it is generally applicable, and there is a range of behaviors that can be identified as dark participation—from individual and erratic trolling “just for fun” to systematic cyberbullying by groups to large-scale, orchestrated disinformation campaigns.
GHB: How did the concept of dark participation originate?
TQ: My involvement in research on the enthusiastic participation literature led me to reflect on the limitations of normative thinking so prevalent in the early 2000s. Fortunately, I had the option to publish in a special issue of an open-access journal, and the special issue editor, Oscar Westlund, allowed me the freedom to experiment and think out of the box. That’s a rare thing in today’s academic publishing world! I'd encourage reading the original article in a linear fashion and its entirety, as it does a few things that you usually don’t do in academic articles.
Spoiler ahead: It not only deconstructs the original concept of participation, but also the one-sided dystopian concept introduced in the article itself. It is deliberately written to convince the reader of one side, and then to reveal the normative side of that thinking as well. Dark participation was never meant as a one-sided “doom and gloom” concept but as a deliberate deconstruction of polarized black-and-white perspectives. Naturally, there are said phenomena under the umbrella term “dark participation”—but there are also the positive options still out there, and behaviors that cannot be simply categorized into good vs. bad.
GHB: How does dark participation relate to the future? What might we do to combat this growing phenomenon?
TQ: First of all: Some of these behaviors are a “normal” part of societal communication, so we have to accept and embrace them in open democracies. Not every stupid nonsense on the internet is a danger to society!
However, when behaviors intentionally harm others or threaten democratic foundations, they cross a line. Many democracies have responded with regulations, and platforms have been reminded of their responsibilities. That’s the legal side.
There's also the avenue of media education, which can be effective but costly. Whatever we do, we must be careful that we do not compromise the freedom of expression in exchange for controlling dark participation. If monitoring is used to control conversations, it can easily lead down a path of democratic self-destruction.
GHB: If you imagine the world 20 years in the future, what do you envision?
TQ: I hope for a world that has learned to deal with these challenges. A world with greater resilience, an ability to expose manipulation, but one that remains open and democratic. We need debate and, to some extent, also conflict. That's part of the principle. However, this might sound quite utopian again, so I better be careful now!
GHB: What do you recommend for people seeking to navigate the current environment?
TQ: Better media training is crucial. While many people know how to use the internet, many struggle to identify disinformation—even very well-educated ones. This training should start early in school and continue into adulthood. Adults must hone their individual research skills. It's also beneficial to expose oneself to multiple perspectives—it doesn’t hurt to know the position and argument of people with a different or even opposing mindset. And if everything else fails, there's always the option of legal action or platform intervention. That’s not always effective, but many people do not even try. And we shouldn't let platforms off the hook too easily.
Thorsten Quandt is a Professor of Online Communication at the University of Münster, Germany. His work focuses on societal changes connected to the internet and new media. Recent research includes studies on “dark participation,” online propaganda, dysfunctional online use, and the transformation of public communication. Quandt has been a visiting professor at Stanford University, the University of Oxford, the University of California (Santa Barbara), and the University of British Columbia Vancouver, and he has published more than 200 scientific articles.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: SpeedKingz/Shutterstock
Quandt, T. (2018). Dark participation. Media and Communication, 6(4), 36-48. doi: 10.17645/mac.v6i4.1519
Quandt, T., Klapproth, J., & Frischlich, L. (2022). Dark social media participation and well-being. Current Opinion in Psychology, 44. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.11.004
Domingo, D., Quandt, T., Heinonen, A., Paulussen, S., Singer, J., & Vujnovic, M. (2008). Participatory journalism practices in the media and beyond: An international comparative study of initiatives in online newspapers. Journalism Practice, 2(3), 326-342.
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