At first I was amused.
Then, over time, my amusement gave way to concern.
Now, the political scientist in me is downright worried.
That describes the evolution of my thinking towards the the alt-right blogosphere.
For those unfamiliar, the “alt-right” is a label used to define the loose confederation of nationalists that view conventional conservatism as weak and generally incapable of countering the global shift towards progressive multiculturalism.
One of the alt-right’s most recognizable faces is that of Steve Bannon, the man President-elect Donald Trump named chief strategist back in November. Bannon is executive chairman of Breitbart News, a site that, as FT noted last month, has run stories with titles like “The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage” and “Bill Kristol: Republican spoiler, renegade Jew”. Last year, Bloomberg described it as “the crusading right-wing populist website that’s a lineal descendant of the Drudge Report and a haven for people who think Fox News is too polite and restrained.”
Although Breitbart’s CEO Larry Solov dismisses allegations of racism as “a smear tactic that has been concocted by a combination of leftwing activists, Hillary Clinton and the mainstream media,” it’s well nigh impossible to ignore the thinly-veiled message embedded in the site’s articles. Spend 10 minutes headline surfing on Breitbart and you’ll come away feeling as though you need a shower.
Apparently, the site has strayed from the editorial vision of its late founder Andrew Breitbart, who had a close relationship with Matt Drudge (of Drudge Report fame). Breitbart has, according some former employees, turned into the online echo chamber for Donald Trump who, via his Twitter account, provides a similar service to Breitbart.
With Bannon’s new role in the Trump administration, Breitbart “is positioned to become a paper of record,” Solov boasts.
Breitbart has emboldened a number of copycat sites that adopt a similar editorial bias and run the same type of inflammatory headlines. Breitbart and its progeny have a formulaic approach to producing content. They take a kernel of truth and inject it with so much bias and spin that it effectively becomes “fake news.”
For instance, say we find out that from 2006 to 2011, terrorist attacks killed 126 people in Europe but from 2012 to 2016, that figure rose to 281 (those are real figures). Now the first thing to note here is that that’s a sad statistic and no one would suggest that we attempt to sugarcoat it. On the other hand, we don’t want to be alarmists about it either and especially not if our only reason for being alarmists is to generate more pageviews, promote xenophobia and bigotry, or both. So how might an alt-right site or blog frame the statistic cited above? Well, they’re likely to come up with a headline like this: “Europeans Killed By Radical Muslims Soar 126% As Merkel’s Missteps Lead To Massacre.” The story under that headline would invariably be just as outlandish and overwrought as the title.
That’s how the alt-right blogosphere works. That’s how it prospers. And that’s how it inspires.
At the outset I said that I initially found all of this to be amusing. Why? Because there’s something terribly ironic about capitalizing on the publication of sensationalist articles while simultaneously bemoaning the dishonesty of the “mainstream liberal media” (a favorite target of the alt-right). Everything you read on one of these websites should have a giant, red “caveat emptor” stamp in the header and in case that’s not clear enough for some readers, perhaps there should be a “consider the source” warning in the margins. In short, the idea that these websites should criticize the mainstream media for being biased is the very definition of hypocrisy.
Breitbart and sites like it also inspire the burgeoning “fake news” industry, which caters to those who identify with the idea that mainstream conservatism is feeble and in need of a dramatic overhaul. “Fake news” created (literally) out of thin air has become so influential that some observers credit its authors with helping Donald Trump win the White House. Consider the following from an FT story that ran last month:
It was once known as “Tito’s Veles” in honour of the former Yugoslav leader who praised the gaily coloured porcelain tea sets its factories produced. But the small Macedonian riverside town of 44,000 is now better known for its wildly successful pro-Trump fake news websites.
More than a hundred US politics sites are run from Veles, where a handful of entrepreneurial Macedonian teenagers – apparently unconnected to American rightwing elements or alleged Russian operatives – produce hoax articles attracting millions of clicks and shares. One such article posted on December 6 said that Syrian terrorists had attacked New York. No such attack took place.
The emergence of a fake news industry in this unlikely spot in the Balkan hinterland may even have tipped the electoral balance in Donald Trump’s favour.
While that’s probably a bit strong, there’s no denying the fact that hundreds of thousands of netizens (some of whom apparently vote) are duped by stories that aren’t just biased or otherwise skewed, but are in fact completely made up. Here are some excerpts from an interview NPR conducted with a purveyor of make-believe narratives (emphasis mine):
On a warm, sunny afternoon I set out with a producer for a suburb of Los Angeles. Jestin Coler lived in a middle-class neighborhood of pastel-colored one-story beach bungalows. His home had an unwatered lawn – probably the result of California’s ongoing drought. There was a black minivan in the driveway and a large prominent American flag.
“The whole idea from the start was to build a site that could kind of infiltrate the echo chambers of the alt-right, publish blatantly or fictional stories and then be able to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they were fiction,” Coler says.
During the run-up to the presidential election, fake news really took off. “It was just anybody with a blog can get on there and find a big, huge Facebook group of kind of rabid Trump supporters just waiting to eat up this red meat that they’re about to get served,” Coler says. “It caused an explosion in the number of sites. I mean, my gosh, the number of just fake accounts on Facebook exploded during the Trump election.”
Coler says his writers have tried to write fake news for liberals – but they just never take the bait.
“Liberals never take the bait” – imagine that.
But do you know who does take the bait? The growing ranks of disaffected voters that have found who they believe to be their saviors in populist/nationalist politicians like Trump, like Nigel Farage, like Marine le Pen, like Geert Wilders, and like Frauke Petry. All of their stars have risen.
Here are some recent poll numbers that presage a strong showing for Europe’s populist candidates in this year’s elections:
The groundswell of support for populism/nationalism comes at the expense of globalization and multiculturalism, two pillars of societal advancement.
But don’t think for a second that the growing ranks of alt-right bloggers and fake news distributors care.
Unconcerned with the real-world ramifications of their disingenuous online banter, they revel in the fact that they can exploit uneducated readers, conspiracy theorists, and those who generally lack critical thinking skills for their own personal gain (it is not unusual for the owners of these web properties to make between $10,000 and $100,000 per month).
One can only hope that eventually, the most influential of the bunch will see the danger in what they’re helping to create and disavow it. But I’m not optimistic.