[Digital Brief] Breitbart-led Right-Wing Media Ecosystem Altered Broader Media Agenda (Columbia Journalism Review)

March 28, 2017

A social media study, "Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda," discovers asymmetrical political polarization in online news consumption.  Scholars at the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and the MIT Center for Civic Media found political polarization is more common among conservatives than it is for liberals. Hillary Clinton supporters circulated news from a relatively broad political spectrum spanning across center-right (e.g., The Wall Street Journal), mainstream (e.g., the Times and the Post), and liberal (e.g., The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast). Donald Trump supporters, on the contrary, clustered around Breitbart and a few like-minded websites such as The Daily Caller, Alex Jones' Infowars, and The Gateway Pundit. The study discovered that even Fox News was once dropped from the favored circle back when it was attacking Trump during the primaries, though the News was embraced again after making peace with the President. Misinformation and falsehoods have been spawned largely from the right-wing media, such as Breitbart News, and they indeed disturbed mainstream discourse.

Now what? How can journalism, as well as the public, ameliorate the ever divisive political landscape? The authors suggest a few important points about understanding “fake news” issues and a new professional obligation that journalism can carry out, such as:

It is a mistake to dismiss these stories as “fake news”; their power stems from a potent mix of verifiable facts (the leaked Podesta emails), familiar repeated falsehoods, paranoid logic, and consistent political orientation within a mutually-reinforcing network of like-minded sites.

Rebuilding a basis on which Americans can form a shared belief about what is going on is a precondition of democracy, and the most important task confronting the press going forward. Our data strongly suggest that most Americans, including those who access news through social networks, continue to pay attention to traditional media, following professional journalistic practices, and cross-reference what they read on partisan sites with what they read on mass media sites.

To accomplish this, traditional media needs to reorient, not by developing better viral content and clickbait to compete in the social media environment, but by recognizing that it is operating in a propaganda and disinformation-rich environment. This, not Macedonian teenagers or Facebook, is the real challenge of the coming years. Rising to this challenge could usher in a new golden age for the Fourth Estate.