Media Manipulation, Disinformation, Fake News and the Alt-Right

Fake News

Interestingly, this morning Donald Trump tweeted about fake news.

Tweets by Donald Trump on Saturday 28th March 2020

Even though the concept of fake news has been with us for hundreds of years, possibly thousands, the term and online phenomenon boomed during the run up to the US presidential election in 2016. Trump became king of fake news, memes and the use of twitter to communicate obscene and untrue messages.

Curiously, when researching for this post, I bumped into Trump addressing fake news as seen above. I guess it does make sense that the king of fake news is (still) claiming that he does not do it and instead blaming others.

An example that made me understand how ‘fake news’ works was the meme known as the ‘star of David image’. This instance of media manipulation refers to Donald Trump tweeting an image of Hillary Clinton next to a star of David which had the text ‘Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!’ on it, and against a background of US dollars. This image refers to conspiracy theories about the Jewish population controlling the US monetary system. A while later after posting this image on Twitter, Trump deleted it and replaced it by an identical image except for the star, which was replaced with a circle.

This example of media manipulation is interesting because it highlights social media’s power, when used strategically by certain powerful individuals to get media attention. Trump managed to place himself in the central light of this instance by changing the offensive star into a circle, and covering up a very offensive image and blaming ‘dishonest media’ for the scandal. By victimizing himself from the claws of traditional media, Trump, in a sense, legitimizes social media’s power and downgrades traditional media whilst at the same time amplifying his own (somewhat diffused) message and gaining presence in traditional media. In Trump’s interest, it is presence in the media he is looking for, not necessarily ‘good’ propaganda and he uses social media to get this. Most internet users are aware of fake news and that ‘not everything on the internet is true’. Yet, the interesting aspect of this example is that the ‘fakeness’ does not matter as what matter is the attention (about Trump).

The 'Star of David' image tweeted by Donald Trump showing Hillary Clinton as the ‘Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!’
The ‘Star of David’ image tweeted by Donald Trump showing Hillary Clinton as the ‘Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!’

A mystery I have never managed to solve is why the far-right and alt-right ideologies embraced memes and fake news, and became so successful at using them for their own benefit? These are tools that usually use very direct visual cues to convey simple yet evocative ideas. Can’t environmentalists, feminists and political activists also use a similar visual tactics for campaigning and having a stronger influence on the media? (Yes, a very controversial question in deed..)

To try and solve my slightly overdue intrigue, I recently read ‘Media Manipulation and Disinformation’ (2018) by Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis, available here, who try to disentangle the messy world of online media manipulation. They write:

“Media manipulation” covers an array of practices. On one hand, people circulate content to push their worldview, often using the mainstream media to increase its audience. (We might more accurately call this “propaganda.”) On the other, there are people who strategically spread so-called “fake news” to make money; trolls who create chaos for fun; politicians with a vested interest in propagating certain frames; and groups who use the media in an attempt to affect public opinion.

The authors also convey that, in most cases, the rationale for the spread of such misinformation is either due to ideology (such as alt-right, chan culture, Men’s Rights Activists), radicalization, status, attention and money. Zooming in on ideology, which seems most linked to my concern, the authors sum up some similarities held among those who spread ‘fake news’ as:

-Disdain for multiculturalism and immigration

– Strong antipathy towards feminism and nonbinary gender identities

– Belief in intrinsic differences between people of different races and genders

– View of “political correctness” as censorship and an assault on free speech

– Belief that a “culture war” exists, which the liberal left-wing is winning

– Embeddedness in internet culture (imageboards, forums, podcasts, blogs, memes)

– Promotion of nationalism and anti-globalism

– Tendency to construct and spread conspiracy theories

Reading this, I feel as if integrated within fake news and memes are strong negative emotions, the disregard for political correctness and the need to ‘win a battle’. The authors also add that the far-right and alt-right ideologies are fighting the dominance of left-wing criticism and Jewish ascendancy, and believe that they must work from the ground up to establish counter-narratives, which today can best be done online. These beliefs both position the far-right and alt-right as oppressed minorities struggling against a domineering status quo, and places importance and urgency on their online bottom-up activism.

Are these the key ingredients of becoming successful with fake news? Are the use of fake news and media manipulation core elements of the alt-right and that is why the left is not as successful at bringing attention to their political struggles?

I guess I am not going to solve this complex issue in one small blogpost. I am still left wondering though if the left could somehow learn from the tactic used by Trump. Is it possible to use fake news and memes without being rude but still being provocative and gain media attention? What do my readers think?

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