BuzzFeed News reporter Charlie Warzel takes a look at the propaganda machine that Trump regime advisor (and white nationalist) Steve Bannon is building to bypass the free press in the age of internet disinformation.
At last Thursday’s DeploraBall, Gateway Pundit editor Jim Hoft stepped on to the event podium, smiling wide in a maroon blazer and ’70s-style wide-collared party shirt. He had an exciting announcement. “We’ve been in contact with the new administration and they’re doing something different,” Hoft said, referring to a Trump administration decision that would award real legitimacy to his popular, ultra-conservative political site. The Gateway Pundit made a name for itself during the election with headlines like “BREAKING: 71% of Doctors Say Hillary Health Concerns Serious, Possibly Disqualifying!” (she had pneumonia), and served as an engine for rumors of Hillary Clinton’s poor health during her presidential campaign. And now that coverage, and its set of alternative facts, was being rewarded.
“We got word that Gateway Pundit is going to have a White House correspondent position,” Hoft said, whipping up the crowd. “We had 1 million readers a day coming in. And the reason was because I was telling the truth and the mainstream media was telling the fake fucking news!”
The crowd — a loose collection pro-Trumpers gathered to “celebrate memeing a president into existence” — went nuts with a deafening chant of “Real news! Real news! Real news!”
If you’ve been paying attention during the long run-up to Trump’s unexpected victory, you may have noticed a new dynamic in the already fractured and chaotic political media ecosystem. There is a new new media. Its branding (“news you can trust,” “we report the truth”), design (sleek, media-rich webpages), and distribution (heavy social and video presences across Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, YouTube, podcasts) all feel familiar. But its message is very different. It is unedited and unabashedly pro-Trump, and it often posits an interpretation of reality dramatically different from that of the mainstream media.
Welcome to the New Media Upside Down: a parallel universe (think the Upside Down from the Netflix series Stranger Things) that operates as a mirror image of its mainstream counterpart with its own “alternative facts,” audience, and interpretation of truth. The New Media Upside Down looks a lot like the media it’s trying to undermine and replace, but it’s darker in vision — and raw. If you live in the mainstream media world, the New Media Upside Down can be hard to find — the only real crossover between the two worlds is on Twitter, where its leaders lambaste mainstream news reports often with the aim of discrediting them. It’s (reasonably) young and hungry, and has risen with Trump all the way to the White House — where Steve Bannon, who helped construct this upside-down media world while running Breitbart News, now holds sway as senior counselor to the president himself.
Warzel may be getting a bit romantic here with his description of Bannon's "parallel universe news" outlets here, but the threat is very real. Bannon would love nothing more than to exterminate the free press in America and replace it with his evil, goatee-wearing version, where the only source of news on Trump is what Bannon says it is. And make no mistake, these guys have the money and production values to do it.
The New Media Upside Down and the traditional media sphere may differ in philosophy, but they share plenty in terms of presentation. Noted alt-right troll Chuck Johnson’s new website WeSearcher — a crowdfunded reporting site aimed at raising bounties to expose mainstream journalists and political opponents — is so slickly designed it feels a bit like Kickstarter’s evil twin. Mitchell’s radio show, Your Voice Radio — which is distributed mainly via YouTube and the DIY podcast platform Spreaker — is basically indistinguishable from terrestrial political talk radio. And video-centric outlets like InfoWars, Right Side Broadcasting, and OANN sport high TV production values with chyrons, swooping jib shots, and flashy sets similar to those of cable news offerings. Other figures are more deeply rooted in new media, like Cernovich’s frequent live Periscopes and the constant, frenetic live-tweeting of the day’s news.
In the era of fake news, a defining characteristic of the New Media Upside Down is how it presents its arguments and biases. Borrowing language from its legacy counterparts, it frames the information it broadcasts as sourced reports, using a collection of like-minded writers and video personalities out in the field to tell its version of the truth. Unlike the patently false news coming out of political content farms in places like Macedonia, the New Media Upside Down’s work is based, to some extent, on actual reporting, despite its shaky sourcing and questionable, often misleading framing.
Last week, for example, InfoWars — the unabashedly conspiracy-touting radio and video empire dedicated to fighting the globalist New World Order — reported that BuzzFeed News was planning to release a damning tape of Trump just 48 hours before the inauguration. The piece was reported out by InfoWars’ editor-at-large, Paul Joseph Watson. Yet the tip was discovered to be a hoax by a 27-year old marketer who wanted to see how fake news was generated.
Rarely are such false reports so clear cut; most stories percolating inside the New Media Upside Down exist in a gray area, deftly walking the line between salacious framing/innuendo and falsehoods, but rarely stepping into the dangerous territory of fake news. All signs suggest the ecosystem will only grow murkier. Breitbart News — arguably the largest and most visible publication of the New Media Upside Down — is staffing up across its politics and entertainment desks and is poised to attract mainstream voices to its masthead; just this month, it poached a respected Wall Street Journal reporter to head its business and finance coverage.
The New Media Upside Down’s mirror-image embrace of mainstream language, presentation, and tactics has also helped undermine the traditional media’s credibility. Earlier this month, when BuzzFeed News published a salacious, unverified intelligence dossier on Donald Trump, the New Media Upside Down — often accused of being purveyors of fake news — repurposed the term to denounce reporting by outlets including BuzzFeed News and CNN.
When Bannon's pro-regime propaganda is no longer distinguishable from actual journalism by news consumers, then the game is over. The Constitution may protect free speech, but it doesn't guarantee your local newspaper can stay in business. Much of the damage inflicted on the state of the news has been self-inflicted over the last quarter-century, but Bannon and friends are now in the position to deliver the killing blow to news.
And now they are backed up by the full power of the Trump regime. You don't have to outlaw the media, you can just flood the zone with crap and people won't bother to look anymore. All that's left at this point is "exclusives" going to Breitbart and InfoWars and OANN from the Trump regime, and they can drive their competitors out of business. News is a product, and Republicans want to make sure any government alternatives are tightly controlled if not eliminated.
In other words, we're in real trouble here, and the problem was of our own making. Sort of glad I never got into the business myself. New tag: Propaganda Stupidity.