Can Progressive Media Shows Counter The Influence Of Corporate Networks?
Independent journalists and media makers are fighting on two fronts, but the secret sauce of the progressive movement is hard to replicate
If you are a lefty living in the United States and want to escape the glitzy echo chambers of corporate liberal media — meaning MSNBC (owned by Comcast), CNN (headed by Trump’s former promoter), and others — you’d likely begin your search for alternative views on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and similar made-to-addict “social” media platforms that have gained legitimacy over the last decade.
If you choose to go that route, as many in the U.S. have already done (about two-thirds of Americans get their news from social media), you’d soon be “subscribing to” and “following” a number of journalists, writers, media makers, and public figures who claim to fall somewhere on the spectrum of liberal and progressive thought.
Although “liberal" and “progressive" are often used interchangeably, the two terms have described different ideologies in the past. Liberals and progressives generally disagree on government’s role in providing social services to the poor and the extent to which we let profit-maximizing monopolies rule our society. Progressives today call for a living wage and reforms in critical sectors like healthcare, education, and the military. Many point to the concentration of economic power in society — especially in politics — as a central issue that affects virtually every other political matter in the country.
Given this context, it makes sense that many of the journalists and media makers who are defining the lefty media landscape in the U.S. define themselves as progressive; the fact that they create popular shows with a fraction of MSNBC’s budget only adds to their credibility. Examples of such programs include The Jimmy Dore Show, Secular Talk, The Young Turks, Democracy at Work, The Ralph Nader Radio Hour, The Zero Hour with RJ Eskow, The Michael Brooks Show, The Empire Files, Media Roots, Chapo Trap House, Moderate Rebels, The Intercept, Current Affairs, and many others, in addition to established independent news programs like Democracy Now! and The Real News Network. Shows that are on the often vilified RT America channel — such as Chris Hedges’s On Contact and Lee Camp’s Redacted Tonight —also provide perspectives you wouldn’t hear on the dominant news outlets.
In terms of format, progressive news platforms usually focus on long-form video and audio interviews with political scientists, economists, historians, comedians, politicians, journalists and other storytellers who express their views without having to conform to the theatrics that have defined mainstream news.
Independent media hosts get to curse, joke around, act silly and vulnerable, and other “risque” behaviors that would get a professional talk person fired before the next commercial break. They don’t have to obey the Rubik’s cube of preferences that filter corporate news, which means they can be themselves instead of paid propagandists — all because of their secret authenticity sauce. Who knew “authenticity” is just a bunch of every day people buying a couple of microphones and cameras, and creating better alternatives to Chuck Todd and Morning Joe?
However, great content doesn’t necessarily mean a bright future for progressive media — the same way winning the most votes doesn’t guarantee you the presidency in the U.S.
Many progressives depend on private companies like Facebook and YouTube to host their data and direct people to their content. This arrangement has already backfired against lefty media creators who have been targeted and intimidated by the the invisible hands of the tech bros and their corporate and state collaborators. For example, in May 2018 Facebook partnered with the Atlantic Council — along with its many ex-government representatives —to police content on the platform, which resulted in the deletion of numerous progressive pages.
“These people now have their hands on what is essentially a direct lever over nationwide news distribution,” Matt Taibbi wrote in Rolling Stone about the slippery slope of censorship on Facebook, “it’s hard to understate the potential mischief that lurks behind this union of Internet platforms and would-be government censors.”
Technically, this isn’t a censorship issue — and that’s the problem. Since the First Amendment only limits the government’s ability to restrict our freedom of speech, private social media companies, which have essentially become public utilities, are allowed to do whatever their terms of service suggest.
Trump’s surprising win proved that, for the right price, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube can easily become stenographers to authoritarian regimes. As long as the ad revenues are flowing, not even a catastrophic PR year can stop such companies from cashing in on the “Trump phenomenon.”
Social media giants’ collaboration with Trump’s campaign illustrates why private interests shouldn’t be tasked with policing public communication; the affair is more likely to end up with gambling, corruption, and authoritarianism, than “connecting people” and democracy (although the latter do make better posters and mission statements).
Traditional news organizations also adjusted well to Trump’s brand. In the name of reaching new audiences, the The New York Times allowed an opinion writer to normalize the “cultural Marxism” conspiracy theory made popular through the alt-right movement, while The Washington Post published a call for renewal of American imperialism. Such editorial decisions are emblematic of the Trump era, in which the cover of “diversity of opinion” allows news outlets to publish articles that might as well come from Raytheon and Walmart.
Similarly, CNN and MSNBC have increased their attacks against the progressive Left in ways that would make Andrew Breitbart proud. In April, 2018 CNN writers authored a piece on “extreme” content on YouTube in which they described The Jimmy Dore Show as a “far-left YouTube channel that peddles conspiracy theories” — an attempt to discredit Dore and his team who recently surpassed 500,000 subscribers on YouTube.
The same type of McCarthyism — the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence, named after U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy and his infamous Red Scare campaign during the 1950’s — has been used to silence Abby Martin and Rania Khalek, hosts of the popular political shows The Empire Files and In the Now. Martin and Khalek’s reports are characterized by their anti-imperialist stances and perspectives that question the U.S. mainstream consensus on U.S. foreign affairs.
Attacks against independent journalists echo the coordinated establishment efforts against progressive politicians, such as Bernie Sanders, Tulsi Gabbard, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar who find themselves between an out of touch bipartisan machine, a toxic and corrupt journalism industry, and growing demands by the public to address impending environmental and social-economic crises.
Such divisions on the Left strengthen Fox, Breitbart, and establishment neocons whose goal to vilify socialist policies, deregulate industries, and smear a new generation of progressive politicians finds plenty of support among socially liberal, corporate-friendly Democrats.
What does it say about the future of progressive media when billion dollar enterprises can openly manipulate public perception about anyone with an adversarial perspective — be it through censoring their content, framing them as enemies of the state, or expelling them from a platform? To me, it means that sooner or later progressives would need to create avenues where their content won’t be curated by the same companies and intelligence agencies that spy on the U.S. population, sell us wars, and cater to the donor class.
Progressives look up to crowdfunding platforms like Patreon to directly support independent media makers. While that’s a step in the right direction, establishment media — financed by moguls, billionaires, and faceless conglomerates — has had a formidable head start in mastering the art of public manipulation.
As true disciples of Edward Bernays, media executives on both sides of the duopoly understand they can copy the “look and feel” of independent political shows and use the same aesthetic against the progressive movement. In other words, billionaire-backed conservative and liberal commentators can also broadcast from well-lit, relatable living rooms and produce two-hour podcasts.
This new model of disseminating political analysis and cultural commentary, proliferated and shaped by profit-seeking social media companies, has rejuvenated the right-wing movement and allowed a new crop of “centrist democrats” and “classical liberals” to promote a right-wing agenda without necessarily identifying as right-wing — a profitable niche in the age of Trump.
This peculiar group of pop psychologists, millennial pundits, “guerrilla” journalists, born-again conservatives and other experts in conservative thought represents a re-branding of the Republican Party’s media apparatus, which desperately needed a way to soften Trump’s vile rhetoric and disseminate it to a wider audience.
In 2018, the Data & Society institute released a report which illustrates how YouTube amplifies extremist sentiments via “a network of controversial academics, media pundits, and internet celebrities who use YouTube to promote a range of political positions from mainstream versions of libertarianism and conservatism to overt white nationalism.”
According to the report, members of the so-called “Alternative Influence Network” cast themselves as an alternative media system by “Establishing an alternative sense of credibility based on relatability, authenticity, and accountability” and “Cultivating an alternative social identity using the image of a social underdog, and countercultural appeal.”
In other words, those who preach Trumpism or rail against Trump’s enemies are not just dudes broadcasting from their basements, but a strategic cast of personalities and celebrities whose task is to “convert” as many people as possible. Consider the role of Dave Rubin, who defines himself as “classical liberal,” in cultivating this network:
Rubin is a comedian-turned-pundit who hosts a YouTube talk show called The Rubin Report, which has over 750,000 channel subscribers. Rubin describes himself as a “classical liberal,” a variation on a libertarian embrace of small government and individual liberty. As the host of a number of public intellectuals and influencers, Rubin has become a focal point in a community that calls itself the “Intellectual Dark Web.” Rubin describes this group not in terms of ideology, but rather as an “eclectic mix of people” devoted to having “the important and often dangerous conversations that are completely ignored by the mainstream.”
His most frequent guests are the other self-identified members of this “Intellectual Dark Web” group, including the psychology professor Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro, a conservative media pundit. However, Rubin also hosts a range of influencers outside of this subcommunity, including those with more openly extremist views. These guests include Stefan Molyneux, a talk show host who promotes scientific racism, and Lauren Southern, a Canadian citizen journalist who has since been barred from entering England because of her vehement anti-Islam and anti-immigration activism.
By supporting a network that comprises of shows that run the gamut from traditional conservative perspectives to clever racist and militarist dog whistles, right-wing financiers found a way to utilize YouTube’s services and algorithm in their favor. The sheer number of pro-Trump, never-Trump, and Trump-curious accounts and channels that popped up around 2016 is indicative of what we can expect in 2020, when all the “ideologically diverse” collectives and “non-political” commentators on the right awkwardly solidify behind their master — either because they really wish to do so, or because the “evil leftists” leave them no choice.
Although there are similar networks on the Left, none of them are as well-funded, coordinated, and united in their messaging as the dozens of channels dedicated to alt-right and conservative view points. In addition, a considerable part of establishment Democrats’ strategy is to “counter” progressives who question Democrats’ commitment to war and corporatism. In that regard, liberals and right-wingers have much more in common than those who refuse to obey the lobbies in D.C.
You’d think YouTube (and its owner, Google) would address the ways in which networks of political influencers inadvertently funnel their users toward extremist views. But there’s a familiar catch—their investors and executives just can’t seem to reject the hours of engagement and millions in ad revenue they get through those very networks. As it turns out, hosting white nationalist, anti-immigrant, racist, and sexist videos in the age of economic and social collapse is extremely profitable. How’s that for synergy?
In fact, recent revelations suggest that the level of alt-right engagement on YouTube might be comparable to its “music,” “sports” and “gaming” verticals. In a damning report, Bloomberg’s Mark Bergen exposed how YouTube execs have allegedly brushed off warnings about the platform’s radicalizing content:
One employee wanted to flag troubling videos, which fell just short of the hate speech rules, and stop recommending them to viewers. Another wanted to track these videos in a spreadsheet to chart their popularity. A third, fretful of the spread of “alt-right” video bloggers, created an internal vertical that showed just how popular they were. Each time they got the same basic response: Don’t rock the boat.
One telling moment happened around early 2018, according to two people familiar with it. An employee decided to create a new YouTube “vertical,” a category that the company uses to group its mountain of video footage. This person gathered together videos under an imagined vertical for the “alt-right,” the political ensemble loosely tied to Trump. Based on engagement, the hypothetical alt-right category sat with music, sports and gaming as the most popular channels at YouTube, an attempt to show how critical these videos were to YouTube’s business. A person familiar with the executive team said they do not recall seeing this experiment.
The same cash-for-exposure mechanism is prevalent on Facebook, where Trump’s 2020 team has already spent $3.6 million on ads from December, 2018 until March, 2019, making Trump’s early 2019 Facebook spending “more than the Democratic campaigns combined,” according to NBC.
Electoral campaign spending in the U.S. — which was already reaching astronomical levels due to the Citizens United decision that defined corporate influence as speech—has shaped into an even more gluttonous monstrosity under Trump. Since he announced his 2020 re-election campaign on the day of his 2017 inauguration, Donald has managed to raise more than $100 million for his re-election efforts.
Does anyone seriously think that social media companies will risk their relationship with the Trump administration, instead of carving out a portion of Donny’s 2020 loot for themselves?
The infiltration and routinization of extremist right-wing talking points in the mainstream — an under-analyzed topic in itself — comes at a strange time for the Democratic Party, which seems unable to propose a coherent progressive agenda to counter the Republicans. Despite heartfelt pledges to resist Trumpism, Democrats have yet to form a united front against the “Russian asset” — other than claiming that Trump is, in fact, a Russian asset.
Although liberal and progressive media outlets are usually on the same page when it comes to social issues, the establishment Left doesn’t think twice about attacking those who challenge the liberal consensus on class, war spending, environmental devastation, Big Pharma, and other problematic areas that contributed to Trump’s 2016 win.
Russiagate was no exception. Renowned journalists such as Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, and Aaron Maté, who over the past two years bravely questioned the media hysteria over “Russia’s intervention,” have been persistently smeared by the liberal press and even fellow progressives who bought into the Trump-Russia hype. Instead of reflecting on their colossal loss in 2016, corporate Democrats concerned themselves with how the optics of losing to Trump will make them look in the history books (spoiler alert: not good), so they did everything in their power to turn half-plausible allegations and unconfirmed private research into “breaking news” for two years.
The results? While the right perfected and segmented the delivery of their pro-corporate, anti-immigrant messaging across the digital landscape through media-heavy operations like BlazeTV, PragerU, and Young America’s Foundation, Democrats chose to focus on Reality Trump TV — a convenient excuse to ignore progressive demands, just like in 2016.
The vision of unification between the Left and the Right — which many liberals sold after Trump’s election — was a red herring that further normalized the confluence of financial and media interests that brought us Trump in the first place. Progressives can’t “come together” with forces that advocate for war and devastation. YouTube — a video sharing site — and other profit-seeking experiments in digital communication can’t, and were never meant to, protect the public from authoritarian regimes.
Despite their pro-democracy branding and incessant promotion, social media company’s alt-right “verticals” suggest Silicon Valley will readily serve any right-wing movement that doesn’t explicitly call for murder. And even that‘s not for certain — when asked point blank if Twitter would ban Trump if he “tweeted out asking each of his followers to murder one journalist,” Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, said “they’d talk about it.”
Perhaps progressive media creators will eventually ditch manipulative news feeds in favor of member-supported platforms that don’t cater to the highest bidder. By decoupling themselves from the marketplace and the surveillance state, progressive media makers can crystallize and spread their message without the patronage of private surveillance firms.
This issue is as much about money as it is about our daily habits — if most of us are skeptical about the value of social media and corporate networks, but nonetheless empower such companies with our attention and data, then we deserve the toothless, caricature version of “progressive” that is projected by those in charge.
The sooner we are able to break free from our collective perception of social media and mainstream news as the only credible models to share information — a myth that has been ingrained in most of us since we were in our teens — the sooner we will build digital and physical platforms that value substance over sensationalism.