Designing Disinformation

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Over its long history, print media has developed visual conventions that help consumers differentiate between different kinds of news. Visually speaking, a broadsheet and a tabloid both look very different to one another. Within a newspaper, the visual placement of stories plays an important role. It helps, in principle at least, to prioritise some stories over others and to distinguish news stories from opinion pieces. The turn towards digital news means that those visual conventions and cues have been broken. 

It also means that the imitation and fabrication of news is easier than ever before. Someone inclined towards spreading disinformation no longer has the barrier of massive printing costs. It’s now as simple as mimicking a website design. The internet is still a nascent technology, and websites themselves are constantly experimenting with design. So does this make it harder for consumers to filter fact from fiction in the way that they can for print, and what are the visual indicators of disinformation? 

Homepage of newswars.com

Imitation

News Wars is a website run by radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones that actively seeks to emulate the design and feel of trusted and well-established news brands. US-based journalist Aubrey Nagle chalks this down to the fact that “the aesthetics of truth […] dictate a sober, black and white design with sparse (but striking) imagery, favoring the written word and screaming organization.” However, despite its admittedly sophisticated emulation, there are aspects of the design that betray its real purpose. 

Ignoring the language-based red flags – i.e. the tagline and alarmist headlines, newswars.com certainly looks the part but ultimately feels a little off. It’s a small thing, but the website is notable for its glaring lack of advertising. Just as excess advertising can be a hallmark of certain news websites, a distinct absence of it is also noteworthy. If multinational companies actively want nothing to do with Jones or the websites he runs, it perhaps speaks to the type of content that News Wars hosts. 

Jones’ main website Infowars is another known source of disinformation. Again, it appears to be styled after trusted legacy media and again it is the advertising that gives it away. The website features ads for dietary supplements which, on closer inspection are Infowars branded. Writing for New York Magazine, Seth Brown concludes that the website (and therefore Alex Jones himself) makes its money exclusively from sales of these various vitamins and ‘male vitality’ aids – not the usual practice of a legitimate and diligent news outlet. 

Obfuscation

Imitation is just one way to aid the spread of disinformation. Obfuscation, whether of truth or intent, is also a relatively common practice among certain websites. American newspaper designer Edmund Arnold developed the Gutenberg Diagram in the 1950s as a way of visualising where a reader focuses their attention on a page. It suggests that because of the direction that the Western world reads, the natural focal points of any page are the top left and bottom right, with the other two quadrants acting as ‘fallow areas’ where focus is less likely to settle. This, coupled with eye-tracking studies from Eyequant allows for a rough examination of how news websites are using design to highlight (or hide) certain pieces of information. 

If we take a reputable news outlet such as the London Times and apply Eyequant’s heat map, we can see that it more or less verifies the Gutenberg Diagram. Here the Times have placed their logo in the top right, where it will get the most attention. The map lines up with the first story on the page about shortages, and we see that the article about Hong Kong has been placed in the bottom right, which is the secondary focus of attention. 

The London Times homepage with heat map overlay

World News Daily Report (WNDR) is a satirical news website described by the Washington Post as delighting in “inventing items about foreigners, often Muslims, having sex with or killing animals.” In contrast to the Times, WNDR places its logo directly in the ‘strong fallow’ zone, which has the effect of essentially hiding the outlet from readers. The site also uses size to its advantage. The photo accompanying the main story and the ads on the right-hand side of the page are so big that they further diminish the website logo and slogan – “Where facts don’t matter”. While WNDR is technically upfront about their content being satire, it appears that they have designed their site specifically to hide that fact. 

World News Daily Report homepage with heat map overlay

As seen in the above image, the ‘From The Web’ section features prominently on the WNDR website. This is an example of a highly profitable marketing practice known as chumbox advertising, which in and of itself can often be a source of disinformation. It effectively tricks people into clicking links with promises of financial advice, celebrity gossip, medical cures and cute animals among other things. The companies that run these types of ads (Taboola and Revcontent to name a couple) have little or no verification process, which can lead to people being scammed out of money by the aforementioned promises of financial and medical miracles. While reputable news sources have been known to use this style of advertising, it’s become much less common in recent years for them to do so. Therefore, chumbox ads are not a definitive indicator of disinformation but rather a warning sign that could alert audiences to be a little more careful about believing what they read. 

As digital media have flattened distinctions between content producers and made it relatively easy to mimic the look of legacy news, there is a pressing need to develop design standards and news literacy skills that help consumers evaluate the news they see online.

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