The rise of Alt-Right media
Social media sites like Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter gave rise to the Alt-Right—a group without a defined ideology but centered around nationalist and nativist ideals. This rise seemed improbable considering President Obama entered his lame-duck period with an approval rating eclipsing Ronald Reagan’s which appeared as an indicator the United States would continue on a progressive course. So how did the Alt-Right rise in the shadow of Obama’s progressive legacy?
There are two driving forces that created the conditions ripe to result in the rise of the Alt-Right.
The first is the crumbling public trust in the traditional mainstream media outlets, which earned the pejorative nickname “lame-stream media”. The second comes from the algorithms that drive social media platforms which cater almost exclusively to letting the user feel ‘right’. Social media platforms connect others with similar mindsets creating echo-chambers of self-validation. Get enough users in one echo-chamber and the echo-chamber becomes a bullhorn for a single perspective and righteous indignation at all who oppose it.
The combination of a failure of the mainstream media’s ability to secure public trust and social media algorithm driven echo-chambers created ideal conditions for the Alt-Right to help usher in a Republican majority in the House, Senate, and put a man in the White House.
The traditional press endorsed Hillary Clinton in near uniform fashion beating out both Obama and Reagan. However, the credibility of this media sits at an all time low. Mainstream media started at a high of 72% reporting they trusted fair and accurate reporting in 1972 after an era of exemplary investigative journalism and has fallen to a mere 32% reporting trust in the most recent Gallup poll.
The last election cycle was rife with examples of non-apologetic failures in journalism. CNN leaked questions from the first debate to Clinton’s team. The response from CNN was lackluster where Donna Brazile remarked that she would have covered her tracks better rather than adhere to a higher ethical standard.
Even juries have started to find publications have failed to administer even a modicum of journalistic integrity. Rolling Stone, for example, failed to follow basic best practices for vetting stories and ran a campus rape article that came apart at the seams. No one was fired or really reprimanded at Rolling Stone in the immediate fallout. The publication ultimately faces millions in damages to the dean of the University of Virginia.
This signals a changing of the wind for traditional media sources. Though they once enjoyed lofty approval for investigative journalism in the 1970s, they’re now eyed with distrust for apparently overstepping their extremely generous First Amendment protections.
These conditions left American media consumers ripe to look for alternative sources of news. Social media platforms readily catered to this market gap.
However, there’s a problem with how social media delivers content. The algorithms that drive sites like Facebook have developed over the last decade to deliver a sense of feeling “right”. Where social media operated with the intention to connect friends the sword has cut the other direction by creating ingroup and outgroup perspectives. It connects users with groups exclusively echoing their own views where users are particularly susceptible to Alt-Right ‘fake news’ websites. This presents social media platforms with a quandary—censor ‘fake news’ or stick to the free-speech business model that propelled them to success—a challenge Mark Zuckerberg faces even from his own employees.
A lot of the messaging is delivered through memes or through memetic messaging tactics—image macros or incendiary titles. Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ to describe the evolution of social ideas that propagate in a manner similar to genetics. Memes are easily adapted across social media platforms and the issues Facebook faces aren’t unique to Facebook.
The memetic messaging travels up and down content aggregators like Reddit. Poe’s Law, the adage that without clear disclaimer online communities will take expressions of parody as sincerity, exists in in a way that’s unparalleled with Alt-Right memes. The theory that the Clinton Foundation runs a child sex ring out of a pizza shop is a great example of something that may have started as satire; however, online communities like The_Donald on Reddit, a community of around 300,000 subscribers, puts it through something akin to a Poe’s Law accelerator. Suddenly thousands think the joke is real. This escalated on Reddit to the point the site administrators had to ban a subgroup dedicated to harassing that particular pizza shop.
The Alt-Right messaging methodology isn’t anything terribly new, either. It was, however, much louder than some other movements. Alt-Right memes and hashtag trends spread in a similar fashion to the Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and the more distant Arab Spring movement. Social media operates as an incredible rallying and community organization tool but is easily gamed where a few thousand can force a hashtag to trend in order to whip up a wild fire.
This kind of groupthink memetic messaging may have successfully mitigated a lot of Trump’s deficits to Clinton’s ground game and a reasonable argument can be made that ‘meme magic’ put a man in the White House.
This Alt-Right delivery method for media is not a flash in the pan. It’s a new paradigm and it reveals some serious fissures in the Fourth Estate’s ability to reach larger audiences and recover trust.