Certain stylistic patterns cut across news, politics, and entertainment—all pointing to conservative media corporations' creation of the conditions for disinformation.
In January of 2019, YouTube redesigned its algorithm to promote “authoritative news” sources over independent and amateur ones. This was in reaction to a slew of academic studies and news articles critiquing the platform for providing a hotbed for hate speech and right-wing conspiracy theories. The algorithmic tweak proved somewhat effective in diminishing ultra, far-right content. It also unwittingly shot conservative America’s Fox News, to the top of YouTube’s recommendation rankings; after the algorithm update, views of Fox News videos on YouTube more than doubled. In the summer of 2020, Fox became the most watched US news channel on America’s most popular video sharing platform (Bergen and Tribbitt, 2020). Such an outcome challenges the effectiveness of technocratic, policy prescriptions that disinformation scholars tend to support and promote. It also discredits the “authoritative” designation that “legacy” media like Fox are automatically granted. As Fox News’s specious coverage of the Covid-19 crisis made clear, partisan outlets in cable television and talk radio are propagating the same type of misinformation as “alternative” news outlets online (McDowell-Naylor et al., 2021).
Disinformation studies scholars frequently focus their critical attention towards independent creators online and the role algorithms play in promoting disinformative content because it suggests a relatively surgical, low-cost solution. If technology created right-wing extremism, then technical remedies should be able to undo it. But as Penn State political scientists Kevin Munger and Joseph Phillips assert, this type of “wishful thinking…undersells the importance of YouTube politics” (2019, 3), a politics propelled far more by the platform’s social networks and embedded user communities than by its algorithms.
Countering the predominant focus on YouTube’s digital infrastructure (Ribeiro et al., 2019), Munger and Phillips developed a “supply and demand framework” for studying YouTube’s political news channels. In viewing the demand side of this equation, they write, “white nationalist video media was not caused by the supply of this media ‘radicalizing’ an otherwise moderate audience. Rather, the audience already existed, but they were constrained by the scope of the ideology of extant media” (p. 12, emphasis in original). Yet, this begs the question, how were these political news communities formed in the first place? Intriguingly, Munger and Phillips make a technological argument that does not mention the internet:
The rollout of cable television and the development of partisan television media was the most politically important development in communication technology in the second half of the 20th century. The primary reason is that there were more channels and thus more partisan news consumed in the aggregate. (3–4)
Taking Phillips and Munger’s prescription that “any theory of the impact of YouTube politics should take [cable news] as its starting point” (2019, 3–4), this essay calls for a pre-social media timeline that bridges the history of cable news partisanship with current trends in digital media, streaming, and podcasting. The myopic fascination with the black box algorithms of big tech companies have prevented analysts from recognizing that the best performing online content tends to use a style of political commentary first innovated by Fox News. In other words, the conservative media industry of the late twentieth century helped create the discursive and aesthetic signals that YouTube and Facebook’s algorithms have targeted and consequently aggrandized.
If the sociotechnical approach of disinformation studies scholars overplays the role of technology, Munger and Phillips’ political economic framework treats the political identity of online audiences as overly fixed and predetermined. In so doing, they underestimate the constructive role media corporations play in directing the nation’s political attention and in shaping the sociocultural lines of partisan affiliation. To a significant degree, style creates and precedes audience demand and identity. The Australian-born News Corp founder Rupert Murdoch has been spectacularly effective at conquering different national media markets by attracting audiences with tabloid presentational techniques. Then, having built an audience, the conservative tabloid baron raised the specter of his publicity capacity to pressure politicians for regulatory favors and tax breaks (Arsenault and Castells, 2008). This allowed News Corp (now Fox Corporation) to invest even more money in production values, marketing, and new asset acquisitions, further increasing their audience scope, political influence, and popular-cultural relevance. This Murdochian circuit of power begins by developing outlets with emotionally compelling news styles.
Journalism studies scholar C.W. Anderson (2020) criticized the field for forgetting, “James W. Carey’s central argument that communication is as much about interpretation, texts, and meaning as it is about production, technology, audiences, agency, and social structure” (p. 343). In this vein, I assert that style should be a central analytical category for any research project seeking to explain journalism and politics in an age of populism and hyper-mediatized democracy.
Fortunately, a growing group of communication scholars has renewed academic interests in rhetorical persuasion, mode of address, and qualitative, textual methods. For example, Benjamin Moffit has (2016) advanced a theoretical approach to populism that emphasizes its stylistic elements over its ideational qualities, and this has helped push the political science field to finally grapple with the aesthetic dimension of political communication. This emphasis on identity performance over ideology is exhibited in recent research on policy framing (Kreiss et al., 2020) and partisan media branding (White, 2018; Peck, 2019). Adding empirical weight to this line of analysis, Toff et al.’s (2021) wide-ranging, comparative study demonstrates that the public’s trust in a given outlet has more to do with the presentational style and brand identity of the outlet rather than its editorial practices. Together, this growing body of research exposes the disinformation literature’s essential flaw: its “infocentric” (Hagood, 2020) conceptualization of news. This analytical posture has distracted scholars from seeing how the greatest purveyors of misinformation actually derive their cultural authority.
My final critique of the “disinformation” focus is that its technocratic-infrastructural conceptualization of media power has blunted the communication field’s civic portent. Communication scholars must disabuse this notion that we can avoid or transcend “culture war” political dynamics through fact-checking and by reforming platforms. For entirely different reasons, many left-leaning intellectuals who pride themselves on being good labor-oriented materialists also indulge in this post-“culture war” fantasy. For decades, political scientists believed the divergent parties rationally aligned with different class interests, with the Democrats representing labor and with the Republicans representing the business community. Yet, the political realignment of the Nixon era rearranged this layout of class-party affiliations, discrediting the “rational-choice” paradigm in the process. Increasingly political scientists have come to understand that voting is less a cool-headed deliberation on how specific policies help or hurt the voter’s material economic interest and more an occasion for expressing the voter’s cultural attachments and group loyalties (Mason, 2018).
Too often the decline of the labor movement in the early 1970s and the subsequent establishment of the neoliberal, “Washington consensus” in the Reagan and Clinton years have been interpreted by leftist critics as the absolute decline of class-consciousness in the United States. This essay argues instead that the rise of conservative populism in the late-twentieth century signals not the end of class consciousness but rather its transmutation into a cultural-educational formation. In the last two U.S. election cycles, the gap between the college educated and non-college educated has emerged as one of the most politically salient social divisions in the country. In 2020, all of Trump’s demographic gains came from the ranks of the uncredentialed (Pew, 2021). And this type of educational polarization is not unique to American politics either. As Piketty et al.’s (2021) recent research has empirically established, educational polarization is a global trend that structures the sociopolitical divisions in almost every major Western democracy.
Upon reckoning with the cultural-educational nature of contemporary partisan identity and news, we conclude that the best way to advance a fact-based, democratic form of journalism is not by running away from the “culture war” but by conceptualizing an entirely new way to navigate it. The field of cultural sociology, particularly research on sports, comedy, and musical taste, offers crucial insights into the deep-seated class and race-based aesthetic logics that shape the communication strategies of news organizations and political campaigns. It is imperative for journalism scholars to consider recursive stylistic patterns that cut across the fields of news, politics, and entertainment. Additionally, Antonio Gramsci’s “war of position” concept is still highly useful for thinking through how to reverse, or at the very least scramble, the hegemonic system of identity associations whereby conservative media is read as populist, tabloid, and working-class while liberal media is read as intellectual, educated, and middle class. This discursive configuration may flatter liberal audiences and has worked well to maintain a small but financially reliable niche for Democratic-aligned news organizations like MSNBC. But accepting it, as opposed to actively contesting it, has had and will continue to have dire political ramifications for those seeking to combat the continued growth of “authoritarian populism” (Hall, 1988).
Anderson, C. W. (2020). Practice, interpretation, and meaning in today’s digital media ecosystem. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 97(2), 343. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077699020916807
Arsenault, A., & Castells, M. (2008). Switching Power: Rupert Murdoch and the Global Business of Media Politics. International Sociology, 23(4), 488–513. https://doi.org/10.1177/0268580908090725
Bergen, M., & Tribbitt, M. (2020). Fox News Got a Big Boost on YouTube from an Algorithm Change. Bloomberg, July 10. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-10/fox-news-youtube-channel-got-a-big-boost-from-algorithm-change
Hagood, M. (2020). Emotional Rescue: Consuming media is as much about managing feelings as accessing information. Real Life Magazine, December 3. https://reallifemag.com/emotional-rescue/?fbclid=IwAR0-conGCXjxzINmTLtfv7RgTFaS7e94EMhsw-_-fYMz-se0LvTLBQWXw9Av
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