As social media’s role in the spread of fake news stories in the run up to the US Election is coming increasingly under the microscope, Stuart Aitken, head of content at DigitasLBi, looks at one of the strangest stories to be cooked up in the last days before Trump's victory.
“And people, if they just repeat attacks enough, and outright lies over and over again, as long as it’s on Facebook and people can see it, as long as it’s on social media, people start believing it…. And it creates this dust cloud of nonsense.” – Barack Obama, 7 November 2016.
In the good ol’ days, a conspiracy theory would bubble under the surface for years. If it was a particularly good one it would eventually break into the public view, where it would be analysed properly and a) dismissed out of hand or b) lead to the overthrow of X government, Y dictator or Z executive.
In today’s 24-hour news cycle, dominated by an always-on social media agenda, a conspiracy theory can come and go in a flash. But in this new intense consumption pattern, these conspiracies now have the ability to make a very big impact very quickly. To paraphrase the famous Neil Young quote, they now tend to burn out rather than fade away.
So was the case with the very peculiar #spiritcooking conspiracy cooked up by the US right wing press in the run up to election day.
If you’re unfamiliar with Spirit Cooking, you either haven’t been paying enough attention to the avant garde New York art scene, or the wilder reaches of America’s right wing news outlets.
As the Guardian points out, Spirit Cooking is the brainchild of Marina Abramovic, often referred to as the godmother of performance art. “The act of spirit cooking involves Abramovic using pig’s blood as a way of connecting with the spiritual world, to cook up thoughts rather than food. A video of the practice shows her writing various statements with the blood, such as 'with a sharp knife cut deeply into your middle finger eat the pain'.”
So far, so niche.
However the problems begin when Abramovic emails Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta and his art collector brother to invite them to a private Spirit Cooking performance. In the wrong hands and in the wrong context this invitation could of course be deliberately misconstrued as something else entirely.
The Spirit Cooking hashtag was introduced to the world by Wikileaks on 4 November in the latest in its series of releases of John Podesta’s emails. To make the revelations all the more salacious, the tweet was accompanied by a screengrab of Abramavic’s graphic explanation of what a performance consists of. And it achieved its objective. Having been thrust into the cauldron of social media activity, it was frantically retweeted. It’s now been retweeted nearly 9,000 times.
What’s most fascinating about this though is the incredibly short shelf life of the tweet – and the places it appears to have had the most impact.
The graph below shows how the hashtag #spiritcooking achieved incredible reach incredibly quickly.
The initial Wikileaks tweet was fuelled by support from a range of right wing commentators. The most popular being Mark Dice whose first tweet on the subject has now had over 13,000 retweets and 24,000 likes.
Dice continued to fan the Spirit Cooking flames with a series of incendiary tweets in the next few days: “A vote for Hillary is a vote for Satan. Literally” and “A vote for Hillary is a vote for eating 'cakes of light' baked with semen, blood, and breast milk.”
Digging further into the social analysis of this very odd event though, we find something truly fascinating. Spirit Cooking may have been a flash in the pan, but analysing the states where the Twitter activity had the most impact reveals a remarkable pattern.
The states where the tweet had the most impact were (in order):
Removing the safe states of Texas, California, New York and Georgia, we’re left with four of the swing states that were absolutely crucial to Trump’s victory: Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio. So, four of the eight states where this fantastical story achieved the most traction were states which played a crucial role in delivering a victory for Trump.
Obviously it would be foolish to say that #spiritcooking was solely responsible for delivering those swings and putting Donald Trump in the White House. The myriad reasons for Wednesday’s results are rightly being poured over in microscopic detail in any number of other media outlets. However what we can see is that if attacks like these are part of a wider narrative they can have real impacts on behaviour.
Looking at these figures combined with the turnout data (only 55% of people voted) and data which shows that what we witnessed wasn’t a surge in support for Republicans but rather a decline in support for Democrats (see below), we can see what happens when you put doubt in the minds of voters and make them question whether they want to vote for “their” candidate.
The entirely fabricated Spirit Cooking scandal then provides us with an important lesson about how social media (and social media users) can be manipulated to spread an entirely false narrative – and to spread it to absolute key geographical areas.
Beyond this, much has been made recently of the concept of the filter bubble, the extent to which our social profile shields us form opposing voices and viewpoints. By this rationale I would have expected my carefully constructed social media bubble to protect me from the wild theories of the most right wing of US commentators. But no. On the night after the result was announced two friends’ Facebook conversations descended into discussions of the Clinton ties to spirit cooking, paedophilia, satanic rituals, murder and child abduction. This example also shows us then what damage can now be done in just one day of frantic Twitter activity.
As part of the post-election soul searching, very serious questions are being asked about the role of social media in spreading fake news stories. Mark Zuckerberg himself has been forced to reiterate his position that Facebook is a technology platform, not a news platform and to make the slightly confused argument that it doesn’t have the power to affect public opinion or influence behaviour – despite telling brands exactly the opposite story when accepting their advertising cash.
Looking back, perhaps Podesta did make an error involving himself in something like Spirit Cooking. But, following a major retrospective at the MOMA in 2010 (and a resulting video which has now been viewed over 14 million times), Marina Abramovic’s work is now so mainstream that this should never have been a story. We can only wonder what would have happened had Podesta been invited to a weekend away with Viennese Actionist Hermann Nitsch.
Stuart Aitken is head of content at DigitasLBi and tweets @stuart_aitken