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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.


When in response to the spread of misinformation social media platforms publicly negotiate their role as providers and mediators of the online public sphere, they outsource the responsibility of scrutinizing information to public deliberation. They fail to reconcile, however, their agency in constituting the publics that deliberate, and how these publics continue to change over time. Data extraction and suggestion algorithms both provide social media platforms their profit, and shape users’ experience of the internet; they establish the publicity of online discussions by continually selecting the type of users that encounter particular discussion threads. The relationship between publicity and deliberation deserves further exploration because it is completely missing from the way social media platforms portray the crisis of misinformation. Drawing on Damien Pfister, Tarleton Gillespie, and Alexander Galloway, I argue that re-imagining the spread of misinformation, not as a failure of deliberation, but as a crisis of publicity, can better explain how misinformation survives public scrutiny.

I illustrate this argument by examining a 2007 discussion thread on the PlayStation forums titled “Quest for the Last Big Secret/Mysteries of SofC,” a now-infamous 6-year discussion about an undiscovered secret in the video game Shadow of The Colossus. Centered around unproven rumors about the game, this object serves to illustrate how misinformation thrives, not through a particular politics, but through the relationship between publicity and deliberation. By using a mix of data science methods and rhetorical analysis, I ask, why, how, and when do users in a discussion thread turn from engaging in a collaborative weighing of evidence and towards practices of boundary delineation? How do users justify this turn in relation to other users’ posts, their own experience online, and an awareness of the thread’s publicity? I theorize that this shift in deliberative priorities is only possible with a shared rhetorical imaginary of the publicity of a forum thread. As both private industry and government debate the ability of users to successfully scrutinize what circulates online, and the cost of their failure to do so, this project argues that the changing nature of online publicity is at the heart of this challenge.