Resistance in the Disinformation Age

Liberals have long embraced the organizing potential of new media in their opposition to Trump, but so far seem less prepared to fight the weaponized disinformation that comes with the turf.

Last month when Fox News founder Roger Ailes unexpectedly died, the New York Times reflected on the cable news channel’s pivotal role in the formation of a conservative protest identity, especially during the Obama years:

Mr. Ailes built a network, the Fox News Channel, that would speak to and for those Americans he said were being ignored and disrespected. They were the people who went to Friendly’s for milkshakes, flew the American flag on their car antennas and didn’t see much point in trying to ‘understand’ America’s enemies…That view certainly helped Mr. Ailes establish Fox News as an exclusive, political and cultural safe space for a large segment of the cable news audience…It also helped form the conservative-leaning populist movement that brought his friend Mr. Trump to the White House.

But as FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone pointed out in her post on the Democrats’ resistance movement, there isn’t an equivalent space in cable news media for the left to form such an identity. In fact, cable news media seems to be moving in the opposite direction ever since last year’s presidential election. MSNBC, long considered the more liberal of the three major cable news channels, hired former Fox News host Greta Van Susteren back in January and reportedly considered tapping conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt for a weekend program. CNN, the more centrist channel, caught a lot of flak last summer for hiring a former Trump campaign manager to serve as a political commentator during the presidential race.

Perhaps some of these changes were made in response to the right’s charges of liberal bias in the broader news media, a bias supposedly fueled in part by the media’s concentration in large cities along the nation’s coasts. But I’m more inclined to believe that cable news channels are increasingly narrowing their content to appeal to the age group that is most likely to continue consuming news through cable TV subscriptions for years to come — older adults. This pushes younger and more liberal viewers even further toward alternative media platforms for their news, including podcasts, blogs, and social media. While these platforms can help Democrats forge their own protest identity in the absence of a liberal version of Fox News, they leave Democrats more vulnerable to weaponized disinformation campaigns that exploit the party’s rifts.

As the only major cable news channel aimed at elevating conservative political voices, Fox News is able to concentrate right-leaning viewers’ attention to a single, 24-hour media platform. By contrast, liberal political voices tend to be dispersed across multiple media platforms, and tend to appeal to specific audiences (millennials, women, minorities) rather than to the American left at large. Media dispersion also makes the left’s internal divisions more apparent. As one writer opined, late night (Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers) and political comedy TV shows (The Daily Show and Full Frontal) tend to dole out Democratic Party talking points to their audiences while internet programs like The Young Turks give a platform to left activists who are highly skeptical of the party establishment. Thus, even if liberals can all agree that President Trump is dangerous and that electing Democrats is the best means of putting a check on his power, there is no one media platform that helps to unite the resistance.

One other advantage conservatives have over liberals as a result of having a centralized media platform is the ability to control the narrative about their movement and its policy agenda. Insofar as it is aligned with the Trump White House, Fox News allows the president and his party to dictate what their viewers see, hear, and think about the presidency. I do think that coordination between the White House and Fox News to promote favorable news stories about the president amounts to propaganda, but not entirely on its own. What makes propaganda potent is that very often there is not a credible alternative information source to challenge it. While there are alternatives to Fox News, Trump has sought to de-legitimize them as fake news— leaving the one news outlet he’s aligned with to stand as the only credible information source to his supporters. In contrast, with the exception of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, liberal activists don’t have any major media allies who consistently use their news programs to go to bat for them.

But perhaps the biggest problem liberals face in relying so much on new media to form a protest identity is their vulnerability to weaponized disinformation by those who seek to exploit the Democratic Party’s rifts. Trump was far from a traditional conservative presidential candidate, but Republicans didn’t need him to be in order to vote for him. That’s because differences among Republicans tend to be less substantive (at least as far as policy goes) and therefore less politically consequential than those among Democrats. Republicans understand this, which is why they are able to adopt leftist criticisms of the Democratic Party establishment as their own without being dubbed hypocrites.

For example, late last month a pro-Bernie Sanders political reporter posted the above tweet criticizing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) for sending out fundraising emails for Montana’s congressional race that they had privately conceded Democrats could not win. Even though the DCCC’s fundraising tactic wasn’t unusual — political groups often raise money for new campaigns off the perceived momentum of others— Republicans jumped on it, retweeting and tagging more prominent conservatives in the post, as proof of the Democratic Party’s sheer corruption. Similarly, throughout the 2016 presidential race Trump used Twitter to play up Sanders’ supporters accusations of DNC vote rigging in favor of Hillary Clinton. And of course, the lopsidedness of the Wikileaks email dumps during the race kept of a cloud of suspicion over the campaign.

None of this is to say that there aren’t valid criticisms of the Democrats being aired out over social media. The disinformation is potent in part because of the opaqueness of the party’s institutions. Still, the scrutiny Democrats face of their party’s inner-workings is fairly unique, and given the speed at which disinformation spreads online, liberals who support the party may not be able to push back before the damage is already done.

Much like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, the resistance movement proves that liberals don’t need a left-wing version of Fox News in order to organize people and shape national politics. But they are nevertheless competing against the right-wing media empire, and it is better connected and better funded than the new media platforms liberals love. For Democratic leaders, the best defense against Fox News and right-wing disinformation may just be honesty about this fact, and continued engagement with young liberal activists on their media turf.

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