Info

A trade journal of a still-emerging field, written by Adam Tinworth.

Posts tagged trump

Dale Beran has written a fascinating and compelling long read, drawing a direct line from 4chan springing to life from Something Awful’s forums, to the rise of Trump.

And the bridging factor? Milo. He took the GamerGate movement and connected it up with the burgeoning alt-right via Breitbart, effectively giving Trump another demographic in his electoral coalition. And he did it by battening onto what the Anons were most ashamed of, and making them proud of it:

Here Yiannopoulos has inverted what has actually happened to make his audience feel good. Men who have retreated to video games and internet porn can now characterize their helpless flight as an empowered conscious choice to reject women for something else. In other words, it justifies a lifestyle which in their hearts they previously regarded helplessly as a mark of shame.

It leads to the fascinating conclusion that this part of Trump’s base know that he wasn’t deliver for them – but that’s OK, that’s what they expect. They’re just in it for the lulz.

4chan’s value system, like Trump’s ideology, is obsessed with masculine competition (and the subsequent humiliation when the competition is lost). Note the terms 4chan invented, now so popular among grade schoolers everywhere: “fail” and “win”, “alpha” males and “beta cucks”. This system is defined by its childlike innocence, that is to say, the inventor’s inexperience with any sort of “IRL” romantic interaction. And like Trump, since these men wear their insecurities on their sleeve, they fling these insults in wild rabid bursts at everyone else.

I was familiar with many elements of this story – but I’ve not seen them so well connected before.

Ah, Media Twitter is all aflutter with this news from the New York Times:

The Gateway Pundit, a provocative conservative blog, gained notice last year for its fervent pro-Trump coverage and its penchant for promoting false rumors about voter fraud and Hillary Clinton’s health that rocketed around right-wing websites.

Now the site will report on politics from a prominent perch: the White House.

And they certainly seem pleased about it:

Heavens-to-Betsy, a blogger in the press room? There will be a predictable backlash from journalists (in fact there probably already is one), who will do some eye-rolling at the infiltration of the true journalists’ space. And they will all have forgotten this:

Bloggers and pundits have been granted access to White House briefings in previous administrations

The use of the word “blog” here is pretty arbitrary. The definition of “blog” and “website” are pretty hazy at the best of times and the past five years have only blurred that. (Remember when people were calling Buzzfeed and Huffington Post blogs?)

Gateway Pudit itself has a little fun with that distinction:

The New York Times, a provocative liberal blog

The concern here isn’t that the White House has granted press credentials to a Pro-Trump Blog, but that it has granted them to a Pro-Trump blog. But even that shouldn’t necessarily be of deep concern, because we have so much partisan press already (especially in the UK).

The pundit/propagandist boundary

When should we worry? Well, look at the outlet’s record for truth – if it’s so pro-Trump that it lies for the president, than it’s crossed that hazy line from partisan journalism to straight-up propaganda. And on that charge, they have some form:

The Gateway Pundit did not see protesters getting on or off the bus, and they offered no proof that any protesters had been paid (by George Soros or anyone else). The web site published three pictures of buses and then fabricated a story about paid protesters based on the mistaken observations of a sole Twitter user.

The Washington Post, a blog owned by tech mogul Jeff Bezos, has many more examples for you:

Just last week, the Gateway Pundit published the absurd, social media-generated claim that the Washington Post’s Doris Truong had sneakily snapped cellphone photos of notes belonging to secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, during his confirmation hearing. Truong was not at the hearing; it made no sense to think she would have been at the hearing, since she is an editor of The Post’s website.

The Guardian’s SnowCuck-General* Martin Belam has hit the nail on the head with some of the problems inherent to the current fact-checking culture in response to a political movement prepared to flat-out lie to us:

[…] I’m reminded of Clay Shirky complaining during the US presidential campaign that, “We’ve brought fact-checkers to a culture war”, and Hussein Kesvani writing recently that “fact checkers are terrible at telling stories”, whereas the neo-Nazi “alt-right” movement is great at building and maintaining a narrative.

Here’s Shirky’s tweet:

Narrative. Culture war. These are important ideas to bear in mind, as you analyse this situation.

Narratives versus facts

Journalism in general is much more comfortable with facts and stories (in the 350 word, inverted pyramid sense) than narratives. The development of a narrative has been a fundamental part of the best digital native publishing, which tends to have a view and a tight focus, and then explore that narrative through posts and links. It’s a difference of form born of the contrast between the daily newspaper and the infinite scroll of the internet.

And right now, we’re seeing a full-on clash of those two cultures. And it’s not going well for the older version.

Belam again:

Infowars, Breitbart, Britain First – the sort of websites and organisations that are spreading the far right’s anti-Muslim, conspiracy-theory-ridden ideology – are not going to be afraid to double-down on spreading their message. Fact-checking their spurious claims is one thing – but what does it achieve? To really challenge the spread of this nonsense we need to work out what we are going to do about more effectively spreading the truth.

It’s a fine distinction, but picking away at the lies that build a political narrative does stop falsehood spreading – and that’s valuable – but it does very little to undermine the central narrative that the extreme right are putting out in the US. This problem is not exclusive to the US – we’ve certainly seen elements of the Brexit-supporting right in the UK do much the same. Given the current success in the States, I’m sure we’ll see more political movements copycatting this approach.

The guerrilla war on truth

However, Martin might be guilty of burying the lede a little – not down in the depths of the article, but in the comments (yes, those much-derided comments):

I started thinking that maybe we just have a rota and instead of us all having two journalists each fact-checking every Spicer appearance, we just have one news organisation with the short straw, and everyone links to their fact-check.

I mean, I can’t see it happening, but it’s interesting if you watched things like GamerGate organising, then they had a distributed crowd who could (mostly) agree on one line to take and then push out. It’s very efficient – and the media don’t really have that collaborative mindset because traditionally it’s been about exclusives and being first.

That latter paragraph highlights a really crucial issue. This battle over the narrative is an asymmetric one on a lot of levels. There’s no doubt that the weight of numbers – people – is still very much on the side of traditional media. Despite the brutal cuts to print newsrooms over the years, in aggregate we’re still talking a heck of a lot of people – especially when you figure broadcast into the equation. But those numbers are being wasted in repetition and duplication. This is the classic “over-supply of news” problem given a rather macabre twist.

Asymmetric information warfare

But it’s worth thinking about this in terms of asymmetric warfare. Look at the “opposing forces” Martin cites in the quote above:

Infowars, Breitbart, Britain First

These are all digital outfits and, in the case of Britain First, Facebook-first. These are people who have been honing their techniques for 15 years on blogs, forums and other online services. They were birthed in the rants against the “MSM” in right-wing blogs in the early 2000s, and they’ve only got more effective as the social media tools have got more powerful.

How many people today are aware of Breitbart’s origin’s as the late Andrew Breitbart‘s blog, where he developed a vision of publishing honed at The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post. Who remembers Milo Yiannopoulos as a would be mainstream right political and tech journalist in the UK? Or as a hanger-on to London and Berlin’s startup scenes?

Too many saw the #GamerGate battle as a side issue, relevant only to techies and geeks. But it was the testing ground for the techniques that the alt-right are using on a much wider scale right now.

This is a classic piece of asymmetric warfare, with a small, but highly-distributed but well-ordinated group of people punching far above their weight because they are focusing on a central narrative, and are using more powerful digital techniques than their sluggish, divided mainstream competitors. The newspapers and broadcast media have very big guns, but they’re all firing them at the same place – and it’s not where the opposition really are.

The Meme is the longbow of the 21st Century

Don’t believe me? Look at this analysis of Breitbart’s use of Facebook:

[…] although Breitbart posted 12 times more links out of Facebook than images and videos combined, images and videos account for 79 percent of the total shares out of these top 100 posts. This disparity is even greater when you sum up the total shares of those 100 posts.

Breitbart shares

And this is the most shared post:

Such a simple message. So central to the alt-right narrative. So easily spread. So easily assimilated into your thinking. This is the propaganda power of Facebook at its most might.

These are the digital tools of narrative warfare. Use of memes – and this is what this is – is a fundamental part of the new language of communication. But we’re still fighting with the tools of the last century – the 1000 word article, debunking the lies, but which reaches a tiny fraction of the people as that simple meme above.

Are we prepared to step up and use these tools? Or will be as the French at Agincourt, cut down by the new technology of the age? Then, it was longbows. In the culture wars, it’s memes.

Even when Spicer, Conway and the others use the traditional media, it’s to spread messages that will be picked up and repeated through digital – and especially social media – by their base. They are subverting the mainstream, and turning it into an additional and reinforcing distribution challenge even as they subvert trust in it.

Are you of digital or merely on digital?

At a fundamental level, there’s a war being waged between organisations which are on digital but are not of digital, and those whose very way of operating has been forged in the fires of digital culture wars over decades. And they’re using the power of direct communication – a power that was prophesied as long ago as 1999’s Cluetrain Manifesto, albeit in rather hippier form:

  • Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
  • Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
  • People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.

Politics has fluffed around the edges of this. The Obama years used social media very effectively: remember this?

Great image. But a carefully planned and staged image. Trump has subverted all that by talking like a person – although, admittedly, a particular kind of person – and his voice is undeniably his own. So many of his compatriots in this movement do the same. This has the power to make one of the elite – as Trump’s wealth and status make him – feel like one of the guys. They sound like people. We sound like – brace yourselves – elites hectoring people from our positions of power.

We won’t win the battle for truth with the weapons of the past. We need to take up the longbows of the digital era, and prove ourselves on the battleground of 21st century ideas.

*Sorry Martin, couldn’t resist.

Here’s an interesting take on an issue that seems to be gripping American journalists right now:

In a nutshell, a statement can fairly be called a lie if there is abundant evidence to the contrary that a speaker should have known about. For example, you can argue that saying the inauguration drew record crowds deserves to be called a lie because there are multiple credible news reports that have proven this to be untrue. At the time of the inauguration, saying so might merely have been a misunderstanding. But one week later, that stance has hardened into something that could be called a lie.

Mathew Ingram make a good job of untangling the complications and ethical issues around calling something a lie. The core point? To be a lie, there has to be an intent to deceive. And it’s hard for to know people’s intent with authority.

Huffington Post, July 2015:

After watching and listening to Donald Trump since he announced his candidacy for president, we have decided we won’t report on Trump’s campaign as part of The Huffington Post’s political coverage. Instead, we will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section. Our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow.

Huffington Post today:

Donald Trump has shocked the world with a stunning victory to be elected President of the United States following a bitter and divisive campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton. The result has been called by The Associated Press.

If we can understand that journey, we can understand the media’s role in the politics of 2016.