American Fringes: How the Media Makes it Worse
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the fringes are the America of tomorrow ... unless we act now.
By Nick Fouriezos
On Sunday, we explored the ways that the American Fringes are bubbling up to become the mainstream of tomorrow — defining the extreme ideologies at war, their sordid histories and how technology has aided their ascent. Today, we further that discussion with a look at how the news media is incentivized to amplify conflict and conform to extreme ideologies, where fringe groups are emerging globally and how people can keep the fringes from winning hearts and minds.
The Media Ecosystem Is Compromised
We Need Gatekeepers. Decimated by the rise of the internet and the decline of print advertising in the early 2000s, newspapers have lost half of their newsroom employees since 2008, and those numbers predate COVID-19. Newspapers traditionally served as gatekeepers of information, and while that system had its flaws — particularly in its lack of diverse views and voices — it often succeeded at keeping the most fringe views of society from reaching larger audiences. And now, these understaffed local newsrooms are struggling to cover QAnon in their communities, but there are steps we can take to save them.
Incentivized by Extremes. While newspapers declined, radio and cable news held relatively steady. Virality and the drive to gin up page views have exacerbated the worst tendencies of some media toward hot takes and punditry. Watch this video of Jon Stewart skewering CNN’s Crossfire (and mocking Tucker Carlson’s bow tie) way back in 2006. And with digital media garnering eyeballs through increasingly inflammatory headlines and subject matter, it’s gotten worse. An MSNBC producer quit her job in the middle of a pandemic last month, calling the cable news industry “a cancer” without a cure. Meanwhile, partisanship is so crucial to their business model that media executives publicly wrung their hands about how not having President Donald Trump as an “antagonist” will hurt ratings should he lose in November. Read more about OZY’s mission to Reset America.
Pressure From the Fringes. More extreme voices now have direct public forums to advance agendas and pillory those they disagree with — often on Twitter, which is used by only 22 percent of Americans but holds an outsized sway over the media. The result is pressure on journalists to contort seemingly obvious truths to appease their most activist viewers. It’s pressure from woke theorists and the left that leads to a CNN chyron reading “fiery but mostly peaceful protests” over an image of burning buildings in Kenosha. It’s also why conservative outlets rarely criticize Trump, and Fox News — even amid its own ongoing tension with Trump — so readily spouts conspiracy theories, from racist birtherism to Benghazi to deep state plots against the president.
The Trickle-Down Effect. Conspiracy beliefs increase in response to group threats, according to University of Miami experts Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent. Fox News has parroted conspiratorial Trump messaging that antifa is headed to pillage the suburbs, while liberals have become noticeably more susceptible to dubious facts since Trump’s election — from a former labor secretary tweeting about a plot between Trump and the right-wing news outlet Breitbart to crack down on American universities, to “Blue Detectives” chasing strands of reporting to “prove” illegal Trump activity in online Twitter screeds.
Fringe Actors Abroad
Rise and Fall in Deutschland. Just two years ago, the German far right, led by the Alternative for Germany (AfD), appeared poised for mainstream success. In 2017, the AfD emerged as Germany’s third largest party after parliamentary polls, and a year later, 33 percent of the country’s population told pollsters they identified with populism. That support is now crashing. A new poll released Thursday by the Bertelsmann Foundation shows that only 20 percent of Germans today have a populist mindset. Will the AfD recover, or have the centrist politics of Chancellor Angela Merkel won this battle?
Black Power. Never far from controversy, South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are the country’s fastest-growing political formation. Their far-left policies — they want to expropriate white-owned land, and offer free education and health — place them in direct opposition to South Africa’s two biggest parties: the ruling African National Congress and the opposition Democratic Alliance. And that unique positioning is helping the EFF and its firebrand leader, Julius Malema, woo a predominantly young Black population frustrated and disenchanted with their country’s post-apartheid poverty and corruption. The EFF saw its vote rise sharply in the 2019 parliamentary elections where it finished third, even as the ANC and DA saw their votes drop. Could 2024 be their year?
Red Paranoia. More than half a century after a U.S.-backed military dictatorship massacred half a million Indonesian communists, a rising Islamist movement is whipping up anti-communist paranoia again to build support for itself. The Anti-Communist Youth Movement — called GEPAK — insists Marxism is reemerging in Indonesia, even though there’s no evidence of that. But the pressure from this Islamist movement has made President Joko Widodo revive the ghost of communism as he tries to balance the nation’s growing religiosity with his more liberal policies. Read more about Jokowi’s balancing act on OZY.
Cow Protectors. They sound almost like vegan activists, yet they’re anything but nonviolent. A loose network of activists who call themselves “gau rakshaks” (cow protectors) is behind many of the spiraling lynchings that have targeted Muslims and lower-caste Dalits in India since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing government took office in 2014. Working through WhatsApp rumor mills, these groups lay siege to highways, stop vans transporting cows to cattle fairs and slaughterhouses — beef is seen as holy by many Hindus — and assault the Muslims and Dalits in those vehicles. They’re the perfect mirror to Modi’s politics, reflecting the anti-Muslim indoctrination his rule facilitates while allowing him to claim distance from the worst lynchings (though his ministers have at times publicly supported the killers). They’re also evidence of the deep hypocrisy underpinning the regime’s so-called respect for cows: The country’s meat industry giants are the world’s second-largest exporters of beef, and the Modi government has done nothing to change that.
Amazonian Judaism. For four decades they failed to qualify for Peru’s national election. Now the fringe religious group Israelites of the New Universal Pact, mostly unknown outside Peru, holds 15 seats in a fractured national legislature after 2019’s elections, making it the country’s third largest party. The largely secretive group marries Andean folklore and Hebrew Bible lessons, borrowing from both ancient Inca practices and the Ten Commandments. They believe that the Peruvian Amazon is the real Promised Land.
Who Will Combat the Fringes?
Lyric Jain. This Cambridge and MIT-trained engineer knows more than most about the dangers of misinformation — not just because he witnessed Brexit and the 2016 U.S. election up close, but also because he believes his grandmother died prematurely from cancer after being convinced by online wellness gurus to stop taking her medicine and drink a certain juice instead. His fact-checking news curator company, Logically, promises to tear down echo chambers and fight fake news. In August, Logically helped alert Utah officials to the fact that an anti-sex-trafficking event was actually a QAnon march in disguise, leading to its permit being revoked. Read more on OZY.
Zeynep Tufekci. The University of North Carolina sociologist and professor has been consistently prescient. When the Centers for Disease Control suggested Americans didn’t need to wear masks in January, Tufekci called them out in a tweetstorm. She was early to sound the alarm on the pandemic while also arguing for keeping parks and beaches open. Tufekci has been years ahead of the curve in warning about how YouTube’s recommendation algorithm would radicalize viewers, that Facebook could fuel ethnic cleansing and that school shooting media coverage could inspire more killings. And in an age when clarity devoid of partisanship is needed more than ever, the European transplant’s voice is one to heed.
Olya Gurevich. The Russia-born scientist first arrived in the Washington, D.C., suburbs as a fresh-eyed teenager watching the Soviet Union collapse and hopeful for the American future. But after watching Russian interference in the 2016 election, her faith was shaken — and so she helped found Marvelous AI, a startup using natural language processing to examine political speech and social media to sort fact from fiction in the 2020 presidential race. Read more on OZY.
Joe Biden. Surprised to see him on this list? Of all the presidential contenders who have plunged in since early 2019, Biden has been the most consistent in moving to lessen partisan name-calling, properly address the pandemic and call for the end of violent rioting that distracts from the positive goals of peaceful protest. His empathetic approach has brought a human edge that will be needed if the American fringes are to be defeated.
What Happens Next?
Playing Interference. The Russians are coming. And their biggest weapon is us. While Russians attempting to help reelect Trump have used more direct means like hacking voter rolls, their most effective tactic has been to inflame racial and ideological tension — as they’ve already been doing around COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests. And even if the Russians are not involved, the fear alone is enough to drive people mad. The Chinese and Iranians are doing this too, according to what America’s intelligence community has released thus far, but indications suggest their persuasion motives are not as covert. Read more on OZY about China’s efforts.
Post-Election Chaos. The other day we wrote about the “red mirage,” coined by Democratic data firm Hawkfish to describe how its modeling shows a massive Trump Election Day lead that he loses over several days as Democrat-leaning mail-in ballots are counted. This scenario is a recipe for street clashes — with Trump and fellow GOPers trying to declare victory or hype the vote as stolen — and catnip for the fringes. Agitators spoiling for a fight will get one.
Vaccine Panic. The anti-vaccine movement has traditionally lived on the kooky fringes. The debunked theory that vaccinations cause autism was hyped up by a small but vocal crowd — pre-presidency Donald Trump among them — and they were largely derided. But now with the most anticipated vaccine in world history creeping closer to market, a majority of Americans are skeptical: A USA Today/Suffolk poll last week found that two-thirds of Americans won’t opt to get the vaccine as soon as it’s available, and one-quarter say they never will. Aside from the true fringes — who have hyped bizarre theories about Bill Gates wanting to implant microchips in people via the vaccine — there are legitimate concerns around whether the Trump administration is rushing a vaccine out before the election for political benefit. As major drug companies prepare a public vow to adhere to the most rigorous vaccine safety standards, watch for a fringe-driven conversation against vaccines to accelerate.
How Aggressive Will Big Tech Get? Long accustomed to taking a light touch, major tech platforms are starting to adopt a more heavy-handed approach to trying to squelch the worst of the fringes. Facebook put down a marker last week by saying it would ban new political ads during the final week before the election, and that it would direct users to official results from Reuters while blocking attempts to tell people they’ll catch COVID-19 from voting. But the problem is not paid ads so much as what’s spread organically — often behind the walls of private groups and messages. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have removed thousands of QAnon groups, posts and accounts, but they often are behind the curve. Expect more pressure for bigger steps in the coming weeks.
Solutions, Big and Small
Read Albert Camus. The French absurdist philosopher has rather profound views on the importance of avoiding prefabricated Theories of Everything in times of upheaval. While many castigated him for famously saying that “between justice and my mother, I choose my mother,” they missed his critical point: that he opposes violence on all sides. Camus shows a sensibility that writer Mathis Bitton argues is shared by many Black Americans as well: “that every inch of justice is worth capturing now” rather than waiting “for a great revolution to save us all.” But there has always been that tension within the Black community around whether incremental change is enough, including during the civil rights movement.
Think Before You Share. False memes and sketchily sourced news articles go viral because they play on preexisting biases. Think to yourself whether a particular article seems too good to be true, and seek out multiple reputable sources before giving it a signal boost. Here’s a good primer, including one key tip: Double-check the URL. Fake news sites often mimic mainstream outlets.
Don’t Be the Silent Majority. The fringes are loud. Maybe you’re not. But unless and until you call out fringe ideas and violent rhetoric to your friend groups, your social media followers and, yes, even your conspiracy-loving uncle, those ideas will go unchallenged and might creep ever more into the mainstream.
Big Tech: Shut It Down. Remember when it was a meme to change your profile picture to a black square to honor the BLM protesters? Maybe all of Facebook and Twitter should simply go dark for the week before and — perhaps more importantly — the week after the election. It won’t solve the problem, but it will sure as hell lower the temperature.
- Nick Fouriezos