Column: How the ‘propaganda feedback loop’ of right-wing media keeps more than a quarter of Americans siloed


Why is there so often no overlap, no resemblance whatsoever between the news events reported in mainstream print and broadcast coverage, and even on liberal outlets like MSNBC, and the topics that get broadcast as news on the Fox network and its fellows on the right? What process lets even the most outlandish conspiracy notions survive and flourish in the right’s echo-chamber ecosystem, in a way they don’t come close to doing elsewhere?

Yochai Benkler is a Harvard law professor, the co-director of the university’s center for studying the internet and society, and co-author of a new book with the unmistakably alarming title “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation and Radicalization in American Politics.” The book is a work of anatomy, dissecting how this deep disequilibrium is imperiling the nation’s civic and public life. Benkler has also rethought the part that social media play in all of this, beginning with our perceptions of what free speech has come to mean in the age of Facebook and Twitter.

What are some of Americans’ fundamental misunderstandings about free speech and the 1st Amendment?

I think there are two kinds of major misunderstandings. The first is that it's absolute.

The second is that it applies to your ability to speak no matter who is controlling it.

And sometimes we hear people talking about a 1st Amendment violation when there's a company that's regulating them, a private party or a university that's not a public university.

And in these cases, it's much more about values of speech, and the 1st Amendment doesn't actually control what private actors do unless they're part of the state -- at least most of the time, except in rare exceptions.

Then the 1st Amendment is really only about government involvement in speech, and yet people have taken it to apply to Twitter and Facebook: “I have my 1st Amendment rights,” when in fact we're dealing with private speech, private parties.

I think the biggest misconception is confounding what we think is right with what it is that the law actually requires, particularly when people are talking about Facebook and Twitter.

Both people who think that the platforms should regulate speech, because that will allow more people safe spaces in which to express their views, and people who think that it's just a straight-out violation, or censorship, are getting it wrong. Instead, we have a much more complex and long history where the major media, whether it was radio, whether it was TV and now whether it's Facebook or Twitter, have played an intermediate role, not fully letting anything on, and at the same time also not really being as constrained as the government is.

Many times, how you feel about a particular intervention is determined by where you stand on the quality of the speech. When you're looking at a company and the decisions that it makes, for some people, if they see, for example, Apple removing an app that protests its treatment of workers, they'll see censorship. But if they see Apple removing Alex Jones, they'll see creating a safe environment for a more robust debate.

For others, it'll be exactly the opposite. Where Apple is the speaker, then Apple is the one who has the real speech interest, and so if they want to kick a protester who is protesting against them off their platform, that's just fine. But not when it's general political views.

And that's the real tension when you're talking about these platforms. They're enormously powerful. They actually do shape debate. But at the same time, they they're not the state.

You wrote about the emerging internet a dozen years ago, about what it promised to be and now what it's turned out to be, which is people regarding it, Facebook and Twitter, as a public forum. But they’re in private hands and in the case of Facebook essentially one man's hands. Mark Zuckerberg’s.

When you’re thinking of the way in which American media functioned from the end of World War II until the late ’90s, you had a very small number of private companies -- the TV networks, the major newspapers -- that had enormous control over what could be said in public.

We had this dual system where there were very strong free speech rights for media that didn't reach a lot of people – megaphones, handbills, door-to-door knocking – and informal but quite strict rules on what could be said on TV, what could be said on radio.

When the internet emerged as a public medium in the ’90s and 2000s, there was enormous excitement that at long last you would have free speech happening across the public, and not just in these more isolated forms.

What those of us who were optimistic early on -- and myself included in this regard -- largely ignored was how much unattractive speech, how much quite dramatically radical and offensive speech was being kept outside of the public sphere by this dual system of speech that we had.

And we’re really negotiating that question: How much do we really want an environment that we've never really had before, where all the dirt is out there for everyone to see through platforms we all share? And how much do we really want a bifurcated system where there is some shared public space where people both on the right and on the left can be frustrated with how stifling it is, accompanied by a much more robust but fringe media?

And how much do we really want everybody to be able to just say anything, no matter how offensive it is to anyone?

That’s the challenge we face today.

Apropos of your book, tell me if I have this right: This is basically about the asymmetry of how, with the emergence of right-wing media like Fox and websites, and liberal media like the Rachel Maddow show, MSNBC, there emerged a disequilibrium in how each side took on facts, information, etc.?

Exactly. We analyzed millions of stories and we looked at their text, and we looked at how they linked to each other and how they were tweeted and how they were shared on Facebook for three years, from 2015 to 2018.

Nothing came out more clearly than that the right wing was unique, distinct, insular, and that left media and center left and center media were all part of the same ecosystem -- all the way from the editorially conservative Wall Street Journal to genuine left media -- occupy the single media ecosystem where sometimes some sides definitely were pushing political perspectives, but they had to be anchored in reality, because they were part of a media ecosystem where both the producers and the consumers were paying attention to a broad range of media that were committed to some basis in fact, and to having some level of accountability and responsibility for the truthfulness of what was being said.

I think the biggest misconception is confounding what we think is right with what it is that the law actually requires.

— Yochai Benkler, Harvard law professor

What has happened on the right wing is that essentially they fell into what we called a propaganda feedback loop. This goes back to Rush Limbaugh, since 1988. So it's really not a new phenomenon of the internet.

It’s a good 30 years in the making, where all of the media outlets compete with each other on how sharply they stoke the confirmation bias, the identity of the partisans, and police each other for deviations -- not from the truth but from the party line.

From the orthodoxy?

Exactly. Anybody, whether it's a politician or a media outlet that tries to say, “Stop -- this thing we all believe in turns out to be false. Here are the facts,” at best gets ignored and usually gets attacked.

And the critical difference is not that there aren't crazy clickbait sites on Facebook that try to get people who have left-wing orientations to click on them. They exist.

But those stories don't survive as long, because they are part of an ecosystem that says, “Stop. This story is nonsense.”

Whereas what happens on the right is that no matter how crazy the story, there will be some major media with high impact -- whether it's [Sean] Hannity on Fox News, whether it's Limbaugh, whether it's Breitbart -- that will pick up the story, reframe it, tell it again, identify it as true, and then everyone will start circulating it.

So it’s a completely different dynamic on the right than on the left.

And it's that dynamic that allowed some of the Russian propaganda to propagate. It’s that dynamic that allowed the fake news clickbait providers to make a lot more money on the right than on the left.

It’s the fact that the people who are in there really have lost an anchor in reality that has made them so susceptible to propaganda, both foreign and domestic.

Because the viewers, the consumers of right-wing media, don't look at anything else, and exist, as you say, in that feedback loop?

It's important not to confuse the people who exist purely inside the right-wing mega-media ecosystem and all Republican voters. To the best we can tell from surveys, it looks like it's about half to 60% of Republicans -- which is to say somewhere between 25% and 35%, or between a quarter and a third of the American population in general -- exists in cult-like isolation in a right-wing media ecosystem.

Then there's the roughly quarter to 20%, or maybe it’s as few as 15%, who have half of a foot inside the Fox News universe, but also attend to more mainstream media.

And those seem to be the most important audience to try to persuade, and explain to them just how wacky and different Fox News in particular is, relative to anything that should count as journalism.

You used two particular examples: the claim that Donald Trump supposedly raped a 13-year-old-girl, and the claim that the Clintons had a pedophilia ring, perhaps involving a pizza parlor perhaps involving an orgy island. How these two rumors, both of them false, ended up playing out across the media was very illuminating for your findings.

We tried to combine very large-scale data analysis with very careful, precise case studies, and the case of Trump rape and Clinton pedophilia was particularly good because both stories came out at almost the same time.

Both involved a particular individual who had been convicted of pedophilia, and each tried to associate, in one case Trump, in the other case Clinton, with him.

When we studied only the crazy clickbait sites, they paid attention to this story as much on the left as on the right.

When we restricted it to the most clickbait crazy stuff, the difference emerged when we compared how much attention and replication these stories got -- not on the front-most fringe sites, but on the major sites on the left and on the right.

And what happened on the left is that there were sites on the left that looked at the Trump rape story, found why it was nonsense, published, and then it immediately disappeared from, again, all but the very crazy clickbait sites.

What happened on the right was the exact opposite. The source of the story was a Fox News online story that then got reported on by Bret Baier in the afternoon, and then at night it’s [Newt] Gingrich on “Hannity” and two days later on [then-Fox host] Greta van Susteren and so on and so forth.

And this gets replicated by crazier right-wing media and more importantly highly visible and credible to right-wingers media, particularly Fox News, to some extent Breitbart, all across months of the campaign, all the way to the day before [the election].

And it's that difference: not the supply of crazy stories; they exist on the left and the right, not even the excitement of people on the left and the right to share on Facebook the craziest story. It’s that dynamic of the top media repeating, confirming, accrediting and recycling, that made the difference.

To the point that by December of 2016, 46% of Trump voters told a YouGov poll that they believed there was some truth in the Clinton pedophilia story.

That's not just crazy Facebook on the margins. That can only happen through a committed propagandist effort by the most viewed and the most trusted form of media on the right, which is Fox News.

The criticism of the mainstream media is that “you ignore stories,” when in fact many of these things aren't stories. They're simply rumors that, if you check them out -- as reporters do -- you'll find there's nothing to them.

Repeatedly what we see is that right-wing media are trying to work the ref. They're trying to come up with stories, many of which have a tiny little source of proof in them, and then a lot of crazy conspiracy. And they replicate it and they say it again and again on multiple sites. And then they start complaining, “Why isn't the media covering this? The media is political because it's not covering this.”

In our book we have a chapter on the failures of mainstream media. It’s very hard to exist in a media environment where you're considered neutral, where you see your role as being neutral and apolitical, to continuously come out with stories that say, one side is lying, the other side is not. One side is lying, the other side is not.

The problem is when the reality is that one side is lying vastly more than another, neutrality becomes complicity.

Being neutral in the face of highly asymmetric lying makes you complicit in the acts of the liar. Because by even covering or being willing to be led down the path of saying maybe there's truth there, reporting on both sides of the issue when one side is clearly lying and the other is not, makes you complicit in the activity of the liar.

One of the core challenges of professional journalists is going to have to be how to maintain objectivity without falling into the neutrality trap, when the reality is not neutral.

And when you're a mainstream journalist, you have to recognize that if you don't see more lying on the right, you're probably not looking right.

The left exists in a completely different dynamic. It is much more constrained by reality. And the right is essentially unmoored from the core institutions that we've developed over the last century to tell truth from fiction.

And to tell the story and imagine that you could report on a world that is so asymmetric in a way that is neutral is either to kid yourself or to become complicit.

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