How the Media Helped Legitimize Extremism

For the past few years, reporting on far-right extremism and misinformation has been a messy free-for-all. Sure, there have been some attempts to delineate best practices, and certain approaches to storytelling, such as those that seem to normalize neo-Naziism, have come under harsh criticism. But few rules have guided the new genre of reporting—and, to date, no one has taken a hard look at how that reporting may be complicit in spreading far-right messaging and helping the movement grow.

Until now. A new report titled “The Oxygen of Amplification” offers an unprecedented look at the fundamental paradox of reporting on the so-called “alt-right”: Doing so without amplifying that ideology is extremely difficult, if not downright impossible. The report comes out of the Data & Society research institute’s Media Manipulation Initiative, and is written by Whitney Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Internet Culture. It draws on in-depth conversations with dozens of journalists (including WIRED’s Emma Grey Ellis, who reports frequently on the topic) to illustrate an uncomfortable truth: Journalists inadvertently helped catalyze the rapid rise of the alt-right, turning it into a story before it was necessarily newsworthy.

Now, there’s no turning back. “We have to deal with the reality of a highly visible, activated, far-right element in our culture,” Phillips says. But there are ways for journalists to do better.

It’s not that the reporting was done in bad faith or ill-intentioned; many people thought that holding up a light to the hatred of white supremacist groups would force them to go away. But that didn’t happen. “If it were true that light disinfected, the alt-right would not have taken off in the way it did,” Phillips says. Instead, the very act of exposure, combined with stories that unwittingly framed extremism as a victimless novelty, legitimized and empowered an otherwise fringe perspective.

The report also details how, even as white nationalism was thrust into the national spotlight, some journalists had trouble taking it seriously. Phillips discusses the impact of “internet culture,” or “meme culture,” on digital natives’ ability to spot extremist content; she describes one former reporter at The Daily Dot who joined a Facebook group called Donald Trump’s Dank Meme Stash and did not at first realize that most of the content was not, in fact, satirical.

That assumption of irony is typical of many people raised around internet culture, says Ryan Milner, an assistant professor of communication at the College of Charleston who, along with Phillips, co-authored the book The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online. Blanket irony, which Milner describes as “watching something from a distance and being able to detach yourself from its reality and its depth and its nuance,” was hard to break—and by the time many journalists realized the non-ironic, non-satirical truth about what was happening, the damage had already been done.

Where Does the Media Go From Here?

The study is careful not to lay blame place at the feet of individual reporters, instead seeking to address structural flaws in the way many outlets think about extremism and extremists. In doing so, “The Oxygen of Amplification” lays out several criteria for determining newsworthiness, such as: Has a given meme been shared beyond just the members of the group that created it? If not, Phillips writes, “all reporting will do is provide oxygen, increasing the likelihood that it will reach the tipping point.” In the case of the so-called alt right as a whole, that’s exactly what’s happened: in amplifying alt-right ideology even in cases where it wasn’t necessarily newsworthy, journalists made it newsworthy. But by keeping that tipping point calculus in mind going forward, journalists can help avoid the continuation of a vicious cycle.

The report’s recommendations also include considering a story’s potential social benefit and considering the harm that reporting the story might cause. A common theme is a simple call for self-awareness: “An enormous first step in the issue is acknowledging that the system is being gamed, and individual reporters reflecting on the fact that they’re part of that system being gamed,” says Phillips.

Unfortunately, that might be easier said than done, especially as long as ad-supported journalism is the status quo. (WIRED is supported in part by ad revenue, and in part by subscriptions.) A real reckoning with journalism’s complicity in amplifying far-right messaging would require a fundamental shift in editorial strategy in many newsrooms. Many of Phillips’s recommendations reflect the basic principles of good journalism, but those can also be at odds with the realities of an industry that emphasizes speed and traffic.

“It’s all of these other pressures, like time and competition and lack of expertise within an area, that can introduce problems into the content that we produce.” —Kathleen Bartzen Culver, University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Journalism Ethics

Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Journalism Ethics, points to one of Phillips’s recommendations—that reporters make an effort to talk with people “who have direct, embodied experience with the interpersonal, professional, and/or physical implications of a given issue”—as an example of something that of course most journalists would aim to do, but that is not always feasible, given time pressures.

“I don’t really know any journalists who get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say, ‘Today I’m going to be unethical,’” Culver says. “It’s all of these other pressures, like time and competition and lack of expertise within an area, that can introduce problems into the content that we produce. But just because we have these pressures doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have conversations like this.”

Phillips’s report also describes the “queasiness” felt by reporters who are conscious of the fact that their writing is feeding directly into far-right extremists’ agendas—but who are also rewarded for their coverage. As Roisin Kiberd, a freelance writer for Motherboard, told Phillips: “We’re all damned, because we all profit off it. Even if we don’t make money off it, we tweet and we get followers from it.” Between pressure to build a personal brand, meet quotas, and compete with other publications, the report argues, it is not easy for every writer to take an eminently thoughtful and nuanced approach to the stories they’re assigned, or to reject an assignment outright due to concerns about amplification.

“Capitalism does not align with many of those recommendations,” admits Phillips. “If an organization is dependent on advertising revenue, and if these best practices are going to—and they would—result in less advertising revenue, then publishers would have to be willing to take a considerable financial hit to make the appropriate changes to minimize the spread of mis- and disinformation. The bottom line is that people have to be willing to sacrifice the bottom line.” And if they don’t? Phillips doesn’t sugarcoat what’s at stake: “We lose truth, and democracy becomes more untenable.”


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