An expert details how a 'right wing propaganda feedback loop' warps US politics — and how to fix it
How has the proliferation of online forms of media affected the spread of political disinformation in American politics? Not as much as you might think, according to Yochai Benkler, a Harvard professor of and co-author of Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics.
While right-wing propaganda and disinformation is a major problem, Benkler argued in a new interview with Columbia Journalism Review's Matthew Ingraham, it's nothing new. And though online vectors feed into the propagation of bogus information, the main way this propaganda spreads is via conservative TV news and radio.
To better understand these dynamics, Benkler and his colleagues carried out a study of four million political news stories over the course of three years. They found that "the right wing media ecosystem is distinct and insular from the rest of the media ecosystem."
"A critical implication of our findings is that it is highly unlikely that technology played a central role in causing this asymmetric media ecosystem," he explained. "If anything, Democrats tend to be younger, and younger people tend to use online and social media more than older people. [Two separate studies found] that sharing of 'fake news' was highly concentrated in a tiny portion of the population, was largely done by conservatives, and interacted with age--primarily driven by people over 65. In other words, the problem of online dissemination seems to be driven by older conservatives--precisely the demographic of Fox News."
And yet while there is plenty of sharing of fake news and other forms of deceptive propaganda online, Benkler explained, these stories only really "explode" once they appear on Fox News. If they remain solely online, the spread is limited.
"Television is still much more important than we understand," he said.
He traced the history of this phenomenon to the emergence of Rush Limbaugh's radio show, who proved starting in 1988 that his brand of conservative outrage-bait and propaganda could be "big business." By attacking the groups who sought to change society — feminists, civil rights activists — Limbaugh captivated white Christian men and tapped into their identities.
"The whole business model was not about informing, but creating a sense of shared identity," he explained.
Steve Bannon's leadership of Breitbart News was significant, Benkler pointed out, because the site embraced Donald Trump's 2016 presidential bid long before Fox News did. Eventually, Fox News realized it had to hop on board with Trump because that's what its viewers wanted. And now that Fox News has become essentially Trump TV, Breitbart's influence has waned.
Benkler also explained that, critically, the evidence shows there's no left-wing equivalent of Fox News or the broader "right wing propaganda feedback loop." Because the Democratic Party is much more diverse than the GOP, it's difficult to see how a similar propaganda institution could evolve by keying into an identity group centered on left-wing politics. And liberal voters are more inoculated against such tendencies because they've come to rely upon news outlets that genuinely have informing — rather than propagandizing or affirmation of an identity group — as their primary agenda.
So what can be done to counter the influence of right-wing propaganda? Benkler actually puts his faith in the much-maligned mainstream media organs:
The most recent Pew survey of news sources used and trusted by Democrats and Republicans suggests that, surprisingly, the most used and trusted sources by both centrist lean republicans and lean democrats are CBS, ABC, and NBC. It becomes critical that these outlets be particularly attentive to how they cover the news, what sort of frame they offer for propagandist pronouncement by the president, and so forth. The hard core of the Republican base who spend their days purely in Limbaugh-Hannity land are lost. But they are only enough to win a Republican primary, not repeated elections. And so the critical pathway to a more reasoned public discourse is for these core mainstream media, trusted by a substantial minority of lean-republican voters, to be ever more vigilant not to spread disinformation, not to stoke the fires, and to understand that professionalism and truth seeking do not mean neutrality when you are reporting in a highly asymmetric media ecosystem like ours.