This week I look at the right wing media ecosystem, and how social media promotes right wing content.
This week I started to look more in depth at particular media platforms that make up the extremely conservative British media landscape. Starting with that bastion of reactionary prurience, the Sun, a paper that resembles the object it’s named after only in the sense that prolonged exposure to it will fry your brain. I also looked at Murdoch’s new TV channel, TalkTV, which is due to launch next week.
Among the many social, political and economic factors which push Britain’s politics to the right, the dominance of right wing media has to take a large share of the blame. When I look at journalism jobs on LinkedIn, there are so many jobs going at the Mail, Telegraph, Times and News UK on offer. There is no comparable left wing media ecosystem. no explicitly left wing news channel, and even the most left wing big newspaper, The Guardian, on occasion, platforms the kind of opinion pieces that wouldn’t be out of place in the Telegraph.
Is social media amplifying the Right’s media dominance?
In 2020, just under 75% of the UK’s print media was owned by Conservative Party supporting billionaires like Lord Rothermere, Rupert Mudoch, the Barclay brothers and Evgeny Lebedev. A 2019 YouGov survey also found Britain’s media to be the most right wing of those they polled. As NovaraMedia pointed out, legacy media on the left seems to be failing to adapt and grow like right wing media has.
This legacy media now sits within a media ecosystem where older formats like print and TV are symbiotic with digital media, and it’s no surprise that TalkTV is aiming to leverage the TalkRadio format which has worked well for them on platforms like YouTube and Twitter. This may be because social media actually privileges and promotes right wing content. A recent study of Twitter showed that “the mainstream political right enjoys higher algorithmic amplification than the mainstream political left.”
In 2021, Twitter even admitted in an internal review that it amplified right wing tweets more often than left wing ones. The Guardian reported that “Twitter found a “statistically significant difference favouring the political right wing” in all the countries except Germany.”
This outcome was inevitable. All social media platforms essentially operate on a “surveillance capitalism” model. According to Shoshana Zuboff in her book on the subject, surveillance capitalism “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data [which] are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later.”
Advertisers buy these prediction products to target consumers more accurately. And the more data users produce, the better the prediction products become, and the more advertising revenue the social media platform can make.
That’s why social media algorithms optimise for engagement, and what gets more engagement than saying stuff that makes people angry? A purely emotive discourse is great for engagement, but not for consensus building, compromise and mutual understanding.
They also optimise for volume, which I was reminded of listening to a recent Ten Thousand Posts podcast episode about the influencer Gary Vee. Vee’s life coach strategy is to tell people to turn anything and everything into content, to flood platforms with as much low quality stuff as possible, in order to reach some level of saturation.
This makes sense if the object is to make money, and the value-free nature of social media platforms mean that they just want data at volume, no matter whether that data contains hate speech or something with positive value. It reminds me of GDP as a measure of economic value, which doesn’t distinguish between producing cluster bombs and renewable energy.
Overton Windows and Culture Wars
The domination of social media platforms and the wider broadcast and print media by right wing voices has a powerful effect in setting the boundaries of acceptable political debate – known as the Overton Window.
A review by the LSE of ‘Journalistic representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British press’ in 2016 found that “Corbyn was thoroughly delegitimised as a political actor from the moment he became a prominent candidate and even more so after he was elected as party leader”.
Whether you were a fan of Corbyn personally or not, it is hard to argue with the fact that neither he nor his policies got a fair hearing in large sections of the media.
Culture war issues like trans rights, BLM, the British Empire, and Brexit, which have become the bread and butter of right wing media organisations, are perfect fodder for social media engagement. They touch on deep divisions in how British people see themselves and the places they live, and are part of a long tradition of right wing moral panics about perceived threats to the identity of Britain’s dominant groups.
Much of the content on legacy media platforms like the Sun simply farms this social media content and repackages it for a wider audience.
So if the structure of social media, and the economic structure of society more generally privileges right wing content and media organisations, what is the Left to do? One lesson is that left wing media needs to aim at a different funding model than one based on advertising, which will invariably privilege polarised content.
Is a progressive media possible under capitalism?
I worked for four years at the charity that promotes Wikipedia, which right wing critics often accuse of having a left wing or liberal bias. The truth is that it is a factual encyclopaedia which aims at neutrality based on existing sources, and is funded by donations, not advertising. Similarly, some left wing media organisations and podcasts are now based on a subscription model, so the content is not affected by the need to chase clicks.
Big liberal media platforms like the New York Times and Guardian are also based on this model, which still requires a platform to become big enough that it can attract enough paying subscribers. But arguably, factual news that aims at political objectivity is a public good which should be funded but not controlled by the state, because many people simply cannot afford to pay for news. A totally privatised media will always cater to private interests, not the good of society.
We need to ask ourselves ‘what is the goal of news media?’ In a purely capitalist economic system, the answer will almost always be ‘to make money’, and it’s therefore little surprise that the outcome we get is a polarised, reactionary, emotive discourse which obsesses over moral panics and the dangers posed by minority groups.
But even within this system, examples of different models like Wikipedia exist, in which someone had the idea ‘what if the goal of this platform was to produce the most accurate, factual summary of the information about any subject?’ And then instead of making it a commercial company funded by advertising, they made it a charity funded by donations.
Until the Left can find a model which can exist and thrive within a capitalist economy, but doesn’t follow the logic of that system, the media will be dominated by a small number of corporations run by billionaires with connections to right wing politics, whose interest is simply to perpetuate the system they profit from.
John Lubbock leads on the Right-Watch project at Left Foot Forward
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