The Digital Dilemma
Beeson and Dana Coester's research exposes the dark and dangerous side of digital media.
Parked outside a fast-food restaurant late one night, Dana Coester, professor and creative director for the WVU Reed College of Media Innovation Center, sat next to her husband and colleague, Professor Joel Beeson, as he scrolled through the feed of an Instagram account designed to mimic the actions of a fictitious 13-year-old boy from Appalachia.
The researchers were using publicly accessible Wi-Fi to reflect the digital
habits of young Appalachians, many of whom don’t have cellular phone plans
but rely on public Wi-Fi to use their smartphones. Within days, the fictional
account was targeted with a toxic cocktail of violent, racist and explicit
That evening’s session was part of a larger research project Coester, Beeson and their team have been conducting for more than five years in an effort to map online networks and gain a deeper understanding of the role of platform design and economics in contributing to the normalization of extremist rhetoric, proliferation of conspiracy theories, disinformation and other harmful content online. The data they have collected is used to document and analyze the platform mechanics, algorithmic influences, networks and tactics used to expose and influence young males in the Appalachian region.
The social media experiment was designed to assess how quickly after creating a new account that a child would be exposed to harmful content, particularly through memetic 8 content — a humorous piece of media that i s copied and spreads rapidly online, typically with multiple iterations.
“We structured the experiment so we could observe the difference between which user behaviors are influencing what young people see and what algorithms and other actions outside the users’ control are influencing what they see,” Coester said.
Beeson designed the e xperiment using inexpensive burner phones that were set up to be free of any location, algorithmic or user data.
“We wanted it to be anonymous and non- trackable, and we also wanted to replicate the conditions and kind of experience that young people — teens in Appalachia — have online,” Beeson said.
“In the pilot study, we planned on doing this over the entire summer and were shocked that the progression from normal middle school and high school meme content to disturbing racist, antisemitic, misogynistic and other toxic content showed up within 48 hours,” Coester added.
This work has resulted in network mapping and documentation of the online perspectives of a generation of rural youth amidst the complex socio-political, economic and cultural dynamics in Appalachia. Excerpts of the research and related media works have been presented in a variety of settings over the past few years, including briefings and written testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Digital Security in the wake of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s revelations and in preparation for the testimony of Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri as part of the committee’s hearings on teen mental health.
In 2021, Coester and Beeson’s team presented additional research data on domestic violent extremist groups and the tactics and strategies used to recruit veterans to The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. They provided written testimony by Beeson and former 100 Days in Appalachia reporter Chris Jones, a Marine Corps veteran of Afghanistan. As part of the effort to reach affected communities, Beeson and Coester also provided briefings in grand rounds presentations for West Virginia University Adolescent Behavioral Medicine, which was livestreamed to mental health providers across the state.
Veterans' Affairs. They provided written testimony by Beeson and former 100 Days in Appalachia reporter Chris Jones, a Marine Corps veteran of Afghanistan. As part of the effort to reach affected communities, Beeson and Coester also provided briefings in grand rounds presentations for West Virginia University Adolescent Behavioral Medicine, which was livestreamed to mental health providers across the state.
“Conventional wisdom is that parents and kids alone are responsible for being safe on the internet, but our research suggests teens don’t have to go looking for this stuff on the so-called ‘dark web.’ Harmful content is common on mainstream youth-focused platforms. For parents and teens, it’s not a fair fight.” JOEL BEESON
“Conventional wisdom is that parents and kids alone are responsible for being safe on the internet,” Beeson said. “But our research suggests teens don’t have to go looking for this stuff on the so-called ‘dark web.’ Harmful content is common on mainstream youth- focused platforms. For parents and teens, it’s not a fair fight.”
Coester, Beeson and their team are working to transform this research into tangible resources that can be used in rural areas around the country. Those resources include collaborations with clinicians and community organizations serving rural youth, as well as community training for young people and parents on digital and device safety, and educational toolkits that help parents and guardians, teachers and school technologists better understand the realities of the digital lives of young people.
Coester and Beeson are producing and directing the independent documentary film “Raised by Wolves” that looks at the digital channels — including social media and gaming communities — that expose young boys to dangerous content. The film is narrated through their personal experience as journalists, as parents to five children, as part of an Appalachian Muslim family and as citizens who grew up in poverty in rural America. “I realize I’ve been studying this my whole life,” Coester said of her experience growing up in the Ozarks. “Understanding, first- hand, the challenges of growing up poor in America has helped me document the experiences of young Appalachians through a lens of empathy.”
Coester recently spoke at the 2022 Aspen Festival of Ideas on the panel Stopping Hate alongside Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League and Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Equity Alliance. Coester talked about the challenges in this research and urged listeners to approach the topic with a deeper understanding of the realities of young people’s online worlds.
“We have to understand that shame is an essential ingredient for manipulation,” Coester said. “In our region, young people know where they sit in relation to power structures in the rest of the world, but shame is not something they bring to that. Shame is a shadow that the media and the rest of the world casts on them.”
The “Raised by Wolves” documentary reveals the toxic cultural cocktail young boys are exposed to online and unpacks the complex systems driving this with analysis from experts in adolescence, masculinity, mis- and disinformation, platform economics, rural issues, and insights from targeted community members, including a former extremist in West Virginia who is now working to help protect young people online. The film also explores the challenges of growing up in some rural com- munities and how isolation, shame and trauma can lead young boys to turn online looking for community and a sense of belonging that has become increasingly scarce for some of them.
Coester hopes that the documentary will help the public have a fuller understanding of the kinds of harms young people experience online, as well as the realities of their on- and offline experiences and perspectives at this moment in history.
“A generation is telling us their world is dystopian,” Coester said in the documentary. “Their memes that make jokes out of school shootings, that express self-loathing, abuse, depression, addiction, shared trauma, the pandemic, a world teetering on war.”
“But we also see resiliency,” she continued. “Young people bending toward light, making joy and beauty out of broken things, building their borderless communities, longing for movements where they feel belonging, and a sense of purpose and meaning.”
Coester hopes the film and related works will help communities and policy makers alike shift toward a more systems-based approach that acknowledges generational trauma, historical and regional factors, and other problems contributing to youth susceptibility and the rise in domestic violent extremism. But she also hopes the documentary leads viewers and young people toward hope.
To honor this, Coester worked with young people in Morgantown to produce a local community event and film workshop featuring Appalachian artists and musicians curated by local youth. Hip hop artist geonovah of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, and Morgantown bands Intoxicated Zen and Natural Rat performed at Morgantown Art Party in April 2022. Local teenagers and WVU student Griffin McMorrow helped to produce and film this community event designed to center young people and their experiences through a creative outlet.
“When we engage children in our community in problem solving — looking to them as the experts they are — we see them gravitate toward agency, toward belonging, toward action for good,” Coester said. “As one parent commented early on in this research, ‘Children are like sunflowers. They will turn to whatever light is shining on them.’”
Editor’s Note: Kristen Uppercue (BSJ, 2019; M.S. IMC 2021) is the deputy editor of special projects at 100 Days in Appalachia and has been working alongside Coester and Beeson on this research project since 2019.
Generation Zeitgeist: From User to Creator
In collaboration with Coester's rural digital youth resiliency work, Trollbusters founder Michelle Ferrier developed curriculum to support young creators and digital natives and to provide resources in digital safety and empowerment for young people, parents and educators. The curriculum is designed to move teens from users to creators, defining the digital landscape and its uses and harms. Through 12 educational posters and short video explainers, the program empowers young people to engage in digital spaces on their terms and covers the following topics:
- How the Internet Works
- Your Digital Footprint
- Your Digital Identity
- Lifestreaming: Teen/Influencer Culture
- Surveillance/Big Brother
- Digital Harm & Your Devices
- Connection on the Web
- Situational Awareness
- Anonymity, Identity, Authenticity
- Check Your Sources
- Measuring Success on the Web
- A Culture of Digital Safety