Study: Right Wing Hate/Ignorance-Bubble Infects Mainstream
March 19, 2017
A major new study of social-media sharing patterns shows that political polarization is more common among conservatives than liberals — and that the exaggerations and falsehoods emanating from right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart News have infected mainstream discourse.
Though the report, published by the Columbia Journalism Review, does an excellent job of laying out the challenge posed by Breitbart and its ilk, it is less than clear on how to counter it. Successfully standing up for truthful reporting in this environment “could usher in a new golden age for the Fourth Estate,” the authors write. But members of the public who care about such journalism are already flocking to news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and, locally, The Boston Globe, all of which have experienced a surge in paid subscriptions since the election of President Trump. That’s heartening, but there are no signs that it’s had any effect on the popularity or influence of the right-wing partisan media.
The CJR study, by scholars at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, at Harvard Law School, and the MIT Center for Civic Media, examined more than 1.25 million articles between April 1, 2015, and Election Day. What they found was that Hillary Clinton supporters shared stories from across a relatively broad political spectrum, including center-right sources such as The Wall Street Journal, mainstream news organizations like the Times and the Post, and partisan liberal sites like The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.
By contrast, Donald Trump supporters clustered around Breitbart — headed until recently by Stephen Bannon, the hard-right nationalist now ensconced in the White House — and a few like-minded websites such as The Daily Caller, Alex Jones’ Infowars, and The Gateway Pundit. Even Fox News was dropped from the favored circle back when it was attacking Trump during the primaries, and only re-entered the fold once it had made its peace with the future president.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, writing about the study earlier this week, recalled talking with a Trump voter in Pennsylvania who said she didn’t support Clinton because “I didn’t like how she stole those emails and it got people killed in Benghazi” — a perfect storm of misinformation.
While concerns about political and media polarization online are longstanding, our study suggests that polarization was asymmetric. Pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets, which continued to be the most prominent outlets across the public sphere, alongside more left-oriented online sites. But pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets that have developed recently, many of them only since the 2008 election season.
Attacks on the integrity and professionalism of opposing media were also a central theme of right-wing media. Rather than “fake news” in the sense of wholly fabricated falsities, many of the most-shared stories can more accurately be understood as disinformation: the purposeful construction of true or partly true bits of information into a message that is, at its core, misleading. Over the course of the election, this turned the right-wing media system into an internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community, reinforcing the shared worldview of readers and shielding them from journalism that challenged it. The prevalence of such material has created an environment in which the President can tell supporters about events in Sweden that never happened, or a presidential advisor can reference a non-existent “Bowling Green massacre.”
D.R. Tucker in the Washington Monthly:
This begs the question of how news consumers should respond when mainstream news organizations provide a forum for the sort of falsehoods one often finds in right-wing media–a question that gained new salience in light of a controversy this week involving the Globe.
Twitter was appropriately aghast over the latest missive from a Globe columnist who has long put forward the dubious proposition that climate science isn’t “settled” and that carbon regulations are therefore unnecessary. The controversy stems from the idea that a responsible newspaper shouldn’t run op-eds from folks who suggest that facts aren’t facts.
Indeed, a truly responsible newspaper would never run op-eds from those who would, for example, suggest that the Holocaust was a hoax, so I’m not quite sure why a responsible newspaper would run op-eds suggesting that global warming is. After all, as an erstwhile colleague of that Globe columnist once put it:
By every measure, the U.N.‘s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change raises the level of alarm. The fact of global warming is “unequivocal.” The certainty of the human role is now somewhere over 90 percent. Which is about as certain as scientists ever get.
I would like to say we’re at a point where global warming is impossible to deny. Let’s just say that global-warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future.
Of course, the problem is that the Globe evidently still labors under the delusion that the paper must genuflect to those who think the publication is “too liberal,” and that providing a forum for all manner and manifestation of right-wing arguments, no matter how factually unsustainable, is appropriate in the name of avoiding the liberal-bias accusation. However, climate science is not a partisan issue, as seventeen House Republicans acknowledgedthis week.
Those offended by the Globe’s insistence upon promoting alternative facts on their op-ed page would be better off calling the paper and telling the publication that while newspapers have the right to run scientifically bankrupt views, consumers have the right to drop their subscriptions to such newspapers and put their hard-earned money elsewhere–specifically, publications that will respect mainstream science, not ridicule it.
Alex Jones has claimed that his Infowars website will soon receive credentials to attend President Donald Trump’s White House press briefings. But Infowars has no credibility; it has repeatedly posted bizarre and dangerous conspiracy theories along with false claims and hoaxes.
Jones and Infowars have claimed that the government perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and the tragedies at Columbine, Oklahoma City, Sandy Hook, and the Boston Marathon, among others. The site’s editor, Paul Joseph Watson, apparently has no editorial standards and has repeatedly posted fraudulent information.
The incredible number of events Infowars can filter through a conspiracy lens would be hilarious if the site and its proprietor weren’t influential with the president and his closest allies. Headlines about Lady Gaga performing a “satanic ritual” during the Super Bowl halftime show share space with stories labeling most major terror attacks “false flags” and warnings about the New World Order “opening thousands of portals to ancient demons” or staging an “alien invasion” from space.
Jones recently announced that the purported news organization would be attending White House press briefings and that it has hired widely discredited reporter Jerome Corsi as its D.C. correspondent.
Infowars appearing in the White House briefing room would mean press secretary Sean Spicer would be questioned by one of Trump’s most sycophantic outlets.
Trump and his campaign have repeatedly elevated the once-fringe website. Trump appeared on Jones’ program during the presidential campaign and apparently called Jones after the election to thank his audience for its support. Trump adviser and regular contributor Roger Stone told The Washington Post that Trump “has watched Infowars.” Trump has also tweeted a link to Infowars.