“I think you’re seeing a dying creature,” says Josh Klein. He’s in the middle of a breathless defense of far-right news and opinion website Breitbart News — he’s an investigative reporter for the site’s Jerusalem bureau — which he says has been unfairly targeted by the mainstream media in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. The media, he says, was “exposed” during the course of this year’s election as being in collusion with the political establishment — a theory upon which he says Breitbart was founded when the site emerged in 2007.
“They protect each other,” Klein says, “and they’re freaking out now that the internet is allowing people to get alternate views.”
Breitbart’s appeal, along with that of websites such as InfoWars and TheBlaze, has been an ability to tap into — or perhaps to encourage — a sense of mistrust in mainstream media sources. A major section of Breitbart’s website is titled “Big Journalism,” which largely consists of articles accusing The New York Times, The Guardian, CNN, and others of spreading “left-wing ‘fake news.’”
Websites like these have been a prominent part of national discourse for most of the past decade, due in part to the ease with which their content can be spread through social media. But it wasn’t until the election of Donald Trump to the presidency last month that the extent of their influence was revealed. Former Breitbart executive chair Steve Bannon was named as the president-elect’s chief strategist, while InfoWars founder Alex Jones — a hoarse-voiced proponent of many conspiracy theories — says he received a phone call from Trump after the election “thanking me for fighting so hard for Americans.”
In the wake of Trump’s election, media outlets have struggled to contend with the leveled playing field of social media, which has enabled sites like Breitbart, InfoWars, and TheBlaze — publications often accused of being indifferent to facts — to be taken just as seriously as established news outlets. The new media landscape embodied by the success of those websites — decentralized, fragmented, and factually scattershot — presents a variety of challenges to the future of discourse on both local and national levels.
“An Incomprehensible Amount of Information”
If the opportunity ever presented itself to Joseph Baker III, he wouldn’t hesitate to become a cyborg — an organism comprised of both mechanical and organic parts — and everyone else would too, if he had his way. A few years ago, Baker gained the nickname “the Birmingham Cyborg” because he constantly wore the now-defunct Google Glass technology. The more devices that can be wired to the internet, Baker said, the better.
For all its benefits, though, having a majority of the world’s population with the ability to quickly communicate online has presented some issues, Baker said. “There are already lots of problems we’re seeing now that we have billions of apes wired together,” he quipped as he thumbed through his phone.
And he would know: He’s the founder and moderator of a prominent local Facebook group, I Believe in Birmingham, and periodically has to check in to make sure “it hasn’t burned down.” Discussions in the group’s forum, typically centered around links to external news articles, can easily veer into contentious territory, if not outright venom.
Baker said the idea to start an online forum where people can discuss local issues came to him while he was having a beer one night in April 2010. “The impetus was to have a place [that] could be an online mirror to our efforts at the time to save the historic fire station [No. 10] in Avondale,” Baker said. “It started evolving quickly. … Online information has been hugely influential and it will be even more so as time goes on. The challenge is having a space that presents accurate information.”
Without a well informed public, especially as it relates to government actions and other news, America will never reach its full democratic potential, Baker says. This past election, what he saw online did not offer any solace.
“You can certainly have an echo-chamber effect. Of course it’s impossible to consume all of the information out there. That’s not even a snake-trying-to-eat-its-tail scenario. It’s like the snake trying to eat the world. It’s an incomprehensible amount of information,” Baker said. “So people start to drill down and pay attention to what they want. People put blinders on, in a sense, and go into that echo chamber. ‘I want to pay attention to these sources because they’re the ones I trust.’”
Baker’s online efforts have always been grassroots and locally focused. It’s his belief that people, especially on Facebook, tend to overlook the local issues that have the greatest impact on them. His hope is that his online forum can help spread local news to the people who need to see it. However, Baker, who describes himself as “old school tech,” is quick to note the drawbacks of online news and information.
“I’ve grown up with tech as tech has grown up,” Baker said. “And I feel privileged to be in that position of understanding of what it is and where it’s going. The internet has disrupted everything it’s ever touched. It’s disrupted commerce. It’s disrupted communications, entertainment etc. It’s always upended the status quo. The last frontier for it to touch was politics. And we saw how that went. Oh my God, Donald Trump is the first internet president.”
“A Good Tool Among Many”
This year’s presidential election put Facebook’s ability to spread information into hyperfocus. A recent Pew Research study on social media news consumption showed that “Facebook is by far the largest social networking site, reaching 67 percent of U.S. adults. The two-thirds of Facebook users to get news there, then, amount to 44 percent of the general population.”
After the November 8 results, though, some commentators began to question whether or not the ease with which content — particularly factually inaccurate content — can go viral on Facebook had influenced the election. Calls for the company to begin to censor “fake” news sites — prominent examples of which also include the left-leaning Addicting Info, Occupy Democrats, and U.S. Uncut, in addition to the aforementioned right-wing sites — began to intensify. (Klein describes such efforts to crack down on fake news as “fascist.”)
On November 12, Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg used his online platform to share his thoughts on his company’s apparent role in the election. “After the election, many people are asking whether fake news contributed to the result, and what our responsibility is to prevent fake news from spreading,” he wrote.
“These are very important questions and I care deeply about getting them right. I want to do my best to explain what we know here. Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 percent of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.”
However, the week after the election, both Facebook and Google announced they were taking steps to prevent fake news purveyors from receiving advertising revenue.
Melissa Zimdars, an associate professor of communications at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, who has researched fake news, said that reducing advertiser revenue to fake news sources is an important step toward removing the economic incentive to create fake news, but will not solve the problem entirely.
“I think [reducing advertiser revenue to fake news producers] will be a good tool among many. I think this will definitely reduce the incentive for creators of non-satirical or parodic news, but I don’t know if it will impact the other kinds of problematic, mostly false, and propagandistic ‘news’ sites that circulate misinformation,” Zimdars wrote over email.
Despite Zuckerberg’s protests to the contrary, research indicates that fake news goes viral on Facebook more often than real news. An analysis by Buzzfeed discovered that during the last three months of the presidential campaign, the 20 top-performing fake new stories generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments, while the 20 best-performing stories from 19 major news websites (including the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Politico, CNN, NPR, and Fox News) generated a total of 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments.
“It’s circulated because it’s very sensational in the same manner as clickbait-style headlines. Fake news is often created to confirm people’s gut reactions about people or events, and that confirmation can be very powerful,” Zimdars said.
Zimdars gained national attention last month when her list of “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical ‘News’ Sources” that she created for her communications students went viral. Zimdars took her list off the web after receiving threats and harassment, but has promised to release an expanded list in another format.
Though her work is often reported as focusing solely on fake news, Zimdars has strong criticisms for much of the mainstream media as well, which she sees as paving the way for fake news in its relentless pursuit of online hits and the wave of clickbait that has resulted.
“I think the relationship between contemporary practices in mainstream media and fake news is an important one. Fake news exaggerates the worst practices in journalism, and I think it’s important that while critiquing fake news, organizations look in the mirror and examine some of their reporting practices,” she said.
“That’s the Fine Line You Walk”
As the editor of the Alabama NewsCenter, an online publication that seeks to highlight “good news stories” in Alabama and make them available to various publications to print — akin to a typical newswire service — Mike Tomberlin has seen the ways in which online news consumption has changed over the years.
Tomberlin, a former reporter for the Birmingham News, actually wrote many of the stories about the Avondale fire station that got Baker involved with I Believe in Birmingham. During those years in the field, Tomberlin witnessed immediacy overtake thorough reporting, because “that’s what the consumer wanted,” he said.
“When I was with the Birmingham News at the time, when we started doing AL.com and really focusing on online content, we still had the practice of waiting until it had appeared in print before we put it on the web,” Tomberlin recalled. “Obviously, that changed over time. In last few years there, we became web-first. That was the mentality there, to put everything on the web first. And then even that transitioned to not even having to go through an editor.
“You could start posting your own stories straight to the site without having to go through an editor or a copy editor to get the story out there. It became more of an immediacy thing. So there were some things about the way AL.com operated that we wanted to do when we started NewsCenter, but there were some things we didn’t want to do.”
For starters, Tomberlin, “saw the need to keep the copy edited, so every story we move goes through copy editors before we put it on the site” so reporters can’t post directly to the web, which he saw as problematic. Now with his own news team at his disposal, Tomberlin said it is important for accuracy to always take precedence over immediacy.
As he put it, “We don’t see ourselves as a competitor with any news outlet, because we’re really telling some stories that aren’t being told otherwise, or if they’re being told, they’re being told in a different way.”
The Alabama NewsCenter launched in 2015 and is owned by Alabama Power. As an extension of the brand, Tomberlin sees the NewsCenter as a beacon of accuracy in an immediacy-driven market. Often times, he said, his organization has to walk the line between these two competing ideals because the public’s demand for immediate information has intensified over the years.
“That’s the fine line you walk, because in the end you’re trying to get the public what they’re wanting,” Tomberlin said. “And they want the immediate news. As soon as they hear the rumblings of something, if you’re like me, you’re going to Twitter or you’re going to Facebook or a news site to see if there’s any validity to it, what’s being said about it by other sources. … So you always have to be cognizant of how people are consuming what you’re doing and try to meet them in the place where they’re at. That’s part of the struggle in addition to everything else that the traditional media outlets are having to deal with now, finding out where they want to meet the consumer at.”
“You’re Not Getting Much New Insight”
Traditional news organizations are not the only groups that have had to adjust to the brave new media landscape created by the internet and the rise of social media. Politicians across the spectrum have taken to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to reach out directly to their followers rather than go through the traditional channels of mainstream news.
“Social media allows politicians to bypass major news outlets and communicate directly with their supporters. There’s no other means of doing any of that that’s comparable,” said Larry Powell, a professor of mass communications and communication researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
On the national level, President-elect Trump has used Twitter to announce his nominations and released videos on YouTube to keep the public updated on the White House transition. President Barack Obama similarly used his Twitter account to encourage people to vote and sign up for health care coverage through the Affordable Care Act.
This pattern is visible in local politics as well. The Birmingham City Council maintains an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. For those who follow Birmingham politics, the Twitter account in particular can be an invaluable resource, as each week it provides live updates of the topics discussed and motions passed at the Tuesday council meetings.
The city council is not the only local government group to utilize social media; the Birmingham Mayor’s Office generally posts several times a day on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office maintains a Facebook account, albeit a less active one, as does the city school system and the Birmingham Water Works and Sewer Board. And of course, this fall saw countless social media accounts for various candidates in local elections through which the prospective office-holders were able to pitch their platforms directly to their followers.
However, while social media does allow politicians and citizens to be more connected than ever, Powell believes that there are dangers in politicians’ bypassing traditional media watchdogs. When politicians use social media to communicate directly to the public, they also avoid engagement with journalists who could ask inconvenient questions or challenge partisan orthodoxy. The danger of politicians’ using social media to disseminate information is that they might just end up “reinforcing existing attitudes and values” rather than providing a fuller picture of what is actually happening, Powell said. “You’re not getting much new insight out of that,” he noted.
“Who Is Going to Send the Mayor to Jail?”
Despite the at least partial impact of social media on political discourse, the prognosis for local journalism is not simply despair. While the internet’s centrifugal nature has diminished the power of individual outlets, this same diffusive force has led to a kind of specialization in smaller newspapers.
People still want to know what is happening around them. Furthermore, when it comes from a consistently trustworthy source ensconced in the community, an organization with the local people’s best interests in mind, people do, in fact, want to read it.
This is borne out in a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, which tells the story of Independent Newsmedia Inc. (INI), a small chain of newspapers that not only sustains itself, but also turns consistent profits. Perhaps unexpectedly, INI works in such towns and cities as Okeechobee, Florida, and Milford, Delaware — exactly the sorts of towns that have been abandoned as local journalism has been hollowed out in the digital age.
After all, when a small- to medium-sized city loses its newspaper, the question arises as to how well its citizens will be informed about what is happening at, say, city council meetings, without personally attending the meetings. Combined with the dawning age of social media politics — in which politicians increasingly participate, rather than just their staff — lack of traditional news coverage can create an environment in which citizens can be persuaded into supporting policies that — in some cases — may be based on false premises unsupported by the kind of structural girding that standard journalism provides.
David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, has been fairly outspoken on this matter, despite his comfortable perch high above Manhattan at a profitable magazine. As he said in an interview with a Spanish publication a few years ago, “I grew up in New Jersey, right across the river, where there’s a newspaper they call The New York Star-Ledger. Every mayor of New Jersey, except the present one, has gone to jail, that I remember. … Who sent them to jail?
“Usually the newspaper, or at least it began with an investigation. If that newspaper, which is a medium-size newspaper, shrinks to nothing or goes out of business, God forbid it, who is going to send the mayor to jail? Who? His assistant? His chief of staff? … No! So there are a million reasons why we need journalism of a highest level.”
At press time, representatives from AL.com had not replied to a request for comment.