Centralized Polarization and the Pro-Trump Media Ecosystem

by Benjamin Collinger & Travis Boyd

The 2016 presidential election propelled a new media ecosystem into prominence. According to a study by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, Hal Roberts, and Ethan Zuckerman, a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world. This pro-Trump media sphere appears to have not only successfully set the agenda for the conservative media sphere, but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda, in particular coverage of Hillary Clinton.

The new right-wing dynamic capitalized on distrust of “the media” and its perceived agenda. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegya memoir and ethnography about America’s white working class – ties Americans’ skepticism about media to social and cultural identity. “With little trust in the press, there’s no check on the Internet conspiracies that rule the digital world. Barack Obama is a foreign alien trying to destroy our country. Everything the media tells us is a lie. Many in the white working class believe the worst about their society,” Vance wrote.

Given Vance’s analysis, a critical question remains: how can we – journalists, citizens, and voters – understand media polarization and build a common consensus? To answer this question, we spoke with Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, about the implications of the study he co-authored, mistrust in civic institutions and media, and the future of media outlets that provide an array of opinions.

Ethan Zuckerman

Your study challenged the idea that the technology of the internet fragments public discourse. How did you determine this, and what are the implications of this finding for journalists and the public?

Generally speaking, we expect that political spheres are going to polarize – if the Right moves into echo chambers, the Left moves into echo chambers in similar ways. What we saw in our data is that the Left has its own perhaps extreme viewpoints, but those extreme viewpoints are still in dialogue with the mainstream media. There’s someone talking to the New York Times or CNN, and there’s part of the Right that’s talking to the New York Times and CNN. Then there’s the Breitbart sphere which is really quite isolated from everything else.

What we end up seeing is the emergence of this really unusual echo chamber on the Right that is structured very differently from the media on the Left. You could gather that all media is Left wing and now we have a powerful Right-wing media. I don’t think that’s the right way to read it. We see an almost normal distribution that goes from Mother Jones and The Nation to the Wall Street Journal, then a center-right gap, and then a sweeping new ecosystem around Breitbart. I would also note that it really is new.

Within that ecosystem, most everything has sprung up since 2009 except Fox News in 1996. But almost everything else there has really grown up during the Obama administration. We see this asymmetric polarization; we don’t see the same things on the Left as the Right and think there’s a really interesting phenomenon taking place.

You mentioned that Breitbart is the centerpiece of the Right-wing media ecosystem. Why was the Right so successful in dominating the narrative if they weren’t in constant dialogue with CNN, the New York Times and other organizations like them?

I think that Breitbart had an ideology that pre-dated the Trump candidacy and Trump found Breitbart, and Breitbart pushed Trump forward. My read on this is that there’s probably always been 10 or 15 percent of Americans who would like to see zero immigration. The Republican Party tends not to take the idea of zero immigration very seriously because it’s seen as unrealistic and incredibly challenging. But Breitbart has alway had that as its central ideology and has been pretty sympathetic to anyone who has put forth that ideology even if they are verging into conspiracy theories. So, Breitbart will amplify something like InfoWars which tends to be more in conspiracy theory territory.

Our study suggests that Breitbart looks at a slate of Republican candidates and says we’re a [one issue organization]. Breitbart is out there attacking Rubio and Fox News because on the one issue they care about, immigration, those sources are far out. Then Trump comes in and in part due to Breitbart’s sway but in part due to really capturing the insurrectionist mood in U.S. politics beyond what anyone expected. And suddenly, Breitbart is this surprisingly powerful voice here. They were behind him early on in the campaign and his views on immigration are very consistent with their views, so they amplified him and built him up. For me this is how this all starts.

Did Breitbart respond to market incentives in a way that traditional media did not? If so, is that a factor in why they have been more successful?

Breitbart’s not unique in being digitally born, but I do think that the digital sites are much better positioned to take advantage of this moment in time. I think Breitbart is very effective in creating a very specific story – the story that plays very heavily on emotions and feels outrageous. So you want to share it, you want to react to it. At the same time, I think what Breitbart in particular does very very well is combine aspects of verifiability along with familiar falsehoods.

There’s this story on Breitbart that claims there’s evidence in Hillary Clinton’s emails that claims she’s one of the founders of ISIS. If you actually read the story, you find out that there is an email chain on John Podesta that mentions that ISIS is getting roughly 20 percent of its funding from Saudi Arabia. Then, there’s a familiar falsehood in the media sphere that suggests that Hillary Clinton is getting 20 percent of her candidacy paid for by Saudi Arabia. So the connections that they make is, well, the Saudis are funding Clinton and ISIS, therefore, Clinton founded ISIS. The combination of this verifiable news and the familiar falsehood is particularly powerful because when you’re trying to verify it by going on Google, you’ll find it repeated a bunch of times. This is something that most of us haven’t figured out how to deal with yet.

We’ve encouraged people to become more media literate and not take everything they see at face value. Well, a lot of these claims, especially if you look up “Hillary Clinton Saudi Arabia”, you’re going to get 20 stories from different alt-right outlets showing you that Hillary Clinton founded ISIS. So those familiar falsehoods become very powerful in the media environment. Then, you complete this logic within a powerful media ecosystem that is very consistent with what Richard Hofstadter referred to as the “paranoid style in American politics.”

The Hill and the Wall Street Journal are generally seen as left and right respectively. What is it about these groups that make them more centered in readership and why are they successful filling that niche?

I think they’re different stories. The Wall Street Journal is sort of the last bastion of the reasonable right. So the newspaper itself has a pro-business orientation but tends not to have the agenda of its editorial page, which clearly leans visibly right. But it’s nowhere near as Right as Breitbart, and increasingly, Fox News which has been captured by Breitbart. I think the Wall Street Journal gets read by the Right, and the Left reads it because they see it as reasonable and understand what is being put forward. I think there’s quite a few people who are on the right, but not on board with Breitbart, so the Wall Street Journal still feels safe. As far as The Hill, I think it’s read by political junkies of any stripe and is very visible in our Twitter and Facebook analysis. It’s play-by-play every single day. And in that sense, there’s equality between people on the left and people on the right who are fans of the game in that fashion.

Breitbart and other media outlets often activate certain identities among their supporters. What do you think of this, and what does it mean for the polarization of the media?

One of the better versions of that explanations I’ve seen is from Judith Donath who is a communication scholar who knows an awful lot about psychology and signaling theory. She finds that people recognize fake news as a sign of tribalism – it’s a way to say ‘I realize you’re going to challenge the factuality of this, but I want to show that I’m on board and I’m willing to stick up for my team.’ Her feeling is that challenging it on a factual basis may be missing the point. The point is that people are willing to share things even if they’re not true as long as it’s what your team needs.

That’s a really challenging scenario for those of who are looking for fact-based meda. We look at it and say, ‘what the hell are we supposed to do with this?’ I think the answer is that we have to understand that humans aren’t rational actors, we tend to make decisions on what aligns with our values and identity rather than just a fact pattern. Part of what’s going on in this moment in politics is that a lot of people who supported Trump felt like the system as a whole is rigged against them and the media is part of that system.

Watching Trump pick up the phrase “fake news” has been fascinating. This was a phrase invented to talk about pro-right-wing media that was fast and loose with the facts. Now, Trump refers to everything he doesn’t like as “fake news”, which turns out to be a really helpful frame for Donald Trump. He’s trying to tell you that everything in these institutions is against you, and that he is smart and rich and can help find a way through it. That whole frame of “fake news” is appealing to folks whose tribal identity is “the deck stacked against us, screw it we’re going to fight the system.”

In the conclusion of your article in the Columbia Journalism Review, you argue that “traditional media needs to reorient, not by developing better viral content and clickbait to compete in the social media environment, but by recognizing that it is operating in a propaganda and disinformation-rich environment.” What concrete steps should news organizations take to achieve this goal?

It’s hard. There’s no immediate formula. The first answer is not try to beat them by joining them. It’s probably not about creating outrageous, provocative, left-leaning news. It’s probably not going to spread the same way as on the right. It’s clear that propaganda and sensationalism can spread on both sides, but the unverifiable disinformation doesn’t seem to spread on the Left. It’s not as easy to get Left-leaning news to go viral as Right-leaning news. I think that is because right now, the Right is more associated with these insurrectionist tendencies to tear it all down.

It difficult to challenge these narratives because at the same time, the media is part of the enemy camp. The president and Steve Bannon have been going around referring to the press as the opposition party. We need to understand that we can’t just say “we’ve got the facts and you’re wrong” and we’re not going to out-viral them. We have to rebuild trust in our institutions and how to talk to people in a values driven way.

Many of these systems have failed for many Americans. There are really good reasons to be mistrustful. There are a lot of institutions that have done a very bad job of taking care of people. I think our press tends to be too obsessed with the stories we’re dealing with today like if Paul Ryan will get enough votes to pass a health care bill. When we tend to get tied up in the minutia of these institutions, it’s almost like we’re announcing that we’ve bought into this rigged game.

Your study showcased how asymmetric media coverage was in 2016 and has become afterwards. How did the Trump campaign capitalize on this, especially in light of Cambridge Analytica’s work?

The conventional wisdom is that Cambridge Analytica has been badly overhyped. One thing that is quite common at the end of any presidential election cycle is that there is always a media story about, “here was the technology genius who altered everything”. Analytica was trying to do that this time around. What is interesting is that if you actually go back and look at the coverage of Trump during the campaign, the story was that he was doing it dumb and cheap. Everybody was getting piles and piles of Trump ads. At one point I could not go on Facebook without getting Trump ads. On the one hand by every rough demographic targeting, I am a middle aged white man and I live in a rural area, so maybe I am a Trump voter.

The flip side of this is that if you do a moment of searching on me you would find that I work for George Soros in my free time. I am not exactly an example of database skillful targeting unless we assume that this targeting is so magnificent that it altered my fundamental thought pattern, which I have to tell you, I don’t think it worked. Analytica, and by the way the New York Times seems to agree with this, radically oversold itself.

I don’t know if the Trump campaign has particular special sauce around this. It did have a candidate who personally used social media with an extremely personal idiosyncratic voice, and I think that’s quite powerful. Its more powerful than many of us give it credit for. People hate institutions, they hate the system, and people voting for Trump were voting for someone to stir everything up. Every time Donald tweeted something that maybe people thought was crazy or unhinged or evidence that he was unelectable; top a lot of trumpo supporters it was evidence that he was his own man and would not be controlled by anyone else. That was a very powerful narrative. That scenario combined with the Democrats insistence on a candidate who had a really hard time mobilizing her base. That explains it instead of some internet fu.

You were speaking about some of the ads that the Trump campaign used and I want to merge a couple topics. You wrote in The Atlantic in 2014 that the current model of the ad-supported web is “bad, broken, and corrosive” Do you think Trump and political campaigns like that can be successful is advertising starts to fall in importance in the media?

I think that advertising is a lot less powerful than many people think. Advertising has always sold itself around mythology, and the mythology is that it works in these weird and inexplicable ways and you don’t understand its dark power. If I had something that worked a little bit but not a ton my incentive would be to sell it to you by saying it is dark and powerful and beyond your understanding. That’s what is going on here. As I said in the Atlantic article I hate the entire advertising market. I do not think it was brilliant use of digital advertising that sent Trump over the top. I actually think that what put Trump over the top was the fact that Trump was over the top. His sheer craziness and raw authenticity did something that advertising could not do. I just do not think advertising was all that relevant in the campaign. That’s really challenging for people who make their money either creating or placing political ads which is a huge chunk of the industry. I just don’t buy it. So I am obviously biased and I may be wrong, but that is what I think of the prime actions of the campaign.

Do you think that politicians and businesses are wasting large amounts of money in advertising?

Yes. Absolutely. That’s not a fallible point of view. The famous saying is that half the money spent on advertising is wasted I just don’t know which half. It has a very fast way of knowing if it’s successful. I had five customers last week and then I took a newspaper ad and this week I got seven. That’s not bad. When it comes to the web, it turns out that the vast majority of people have learned to ignore ads. They very rarely click on them. They don’t click on them until you create an interface that makes it very difficult to get around them. Pop-ups did that for a while. I often ask when I am giving a talk when the last time someone clicked on on an ad.

Someone will say I clicked on one for google and I will say that’s different. Its actually search directed advertising. The other kind is the one that tries to create your intent. Almost no one will voluntarily be clicking these. I will ask when was the last time they clicked on one of these. They will say last week or even today. Then I ask if it was voluntary and of course it was not. It is so hard to navigate this false stream. This is something that people hate. I think it’s hard to be in a business that people hate, and where what you are trying to do is get from .1% of people clicking on something to .11% of people clicking on something and if you are doing this then you are kicking everyone else’s ass. The key to being successful is to be marginally more successful than everyone else who is flat out terrible.

How do you think that media organizations can change those incentives for click-bait? Is it possible? Are there models that you know of that have been successful like non-profits; do you think nonprofits are the way to go where members support it or based on subscriptions?

The problem that no one will talk about. We have to talk about countries like Germany and Britain. Now obviously I am saying this at the same time that Donald Trump is scheduled to execute big bird on the white house lawn. Obviously this is politically unfeasible. It does seem like this is a model that we have to educate. It does work quite well in Europe. I think some combination of subscription, of membership models, of governments coordination, which Europeans have shown is actually possible. This seems like another place where we get trapped in market fundamentalism. In some areas markets do very well, I am a market sort of guy, and it is topical and specific information to media that causes these problems.

Do you think that a government program like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting could make this happen? 

It is really hard in the US. The US historically has a real fear of a government role in media. We are worried that the government is trying to get into propaganda. We would have to look closely at that. I do think in the long run if we want a media that will make us better citizens we will have to invest in it. It will not happen for free. It may not be a matter of just finding the right business model. I have spent many conversations about what business model will stay through the digital age, and I think the answer is none by themselves and maybe none collectively.

The flip side of that is one of the amazing achievements of the Trump presidency is that it revived top notch american journalism. The New York Times is having the best years of its life. There is a wonderful competition between the New York Times and the Washington Post, and both of them are becoming even better news networks because of it.

How should organizations go about creating forums that engage readers at the political center? Most of the webs you wrote about are successful either on the left or the right, but there does not seem to be anything in the center.

This is a problem that people have not figured out how to solve. The center used to have agenda setting power and that was incredible. We want that. One of the points of this paper was that breitbart wanted to talk about very different things during this election. They wanted to talk about immigration and no one else really wanted to talk about immigration. A set of people had immigration as their key issue and they made their way to Breitbart.

As we lose a center, we lose the idea of having a common agenda. We can not even agree on what is worth talking about. This makes it incredibly difficult to have a dialogue. We will either end up with something that has the authority of being the official news source or whether it’s just widely relied on and people are able to look at it and say this is what we are talking about or we will just lose the ability to have a common agenda. When the left and the right get together the first conversation is going to be what is worth talking about.

Benjamin Collinger is a sophomore at Trinity University majoring in International Studies and History, and is the Executive Director of The Contemporary

Travis Boyd is a first-year at Trinity University majoring in History, and is a writer for The Contemporary.

This interview has been edited and condensed. The views expressed in this article are those of the interviewers or interviewee. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The cover photo above from the study Zuckerman co-authored can be found here.

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