A team of esteemed scholars including Yochai "Wealth of Networks" Benkler and Ethan Zuckerman (co-founder of Global Voices) analyzed 1.25 million media stories published between April 1, 2015 and election day, finding "a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world."
I spoke with some of the study's authors last week about this research and came away with the understanding that the media is not a normal curve of left- and right-wing views (with, say, Mother Jones on one end and Fox News on the other), but rather, it's a bimodal distribution, with two distinct peaks to the right: the first is Fox, and the second is Breitbart, who were every bit as vicious in their attacks on Fox as they were on the left — with the effect of pulling Fox far, far to the right, infecting it with a high proportion of made-up stories about inner-city violence and migration.
The study's authors call these made-up stories "disinformation" — not wholly fabricated, but a combination of bits and pieces of the truth, blended with analysis that produces a misleading conclusion.
This disinformation is a much larger feature of the political right than it is of the left, leading the authors to conclude that the issue here is ideological, not technological ("If technology were the most important driver towards a 'post-truth' world, we would expect to see symmetric patterns on the left and the right"). The patterns in the data suggest that this was not the result of a "filter bubble," but rather human choices from the trumpist right, who sought out stories that confirmed their bias, and found a willing partner in Breitbart, who were happy to discard the truth to serve that audience.
While mainstream media coverage was often critical, it nonetheless revolved around the agenda that the right-wing media sphere set: immigration. Right-wing media, in turn, framed immigration in terms of terror, crime, and Islam, as a review of Breitbart and other right-wing media stories about immigration most widely shared on social media exhibits. Immigration is the key topic around which Trump and Breitbart found common cause; just as Trump made this a focal point for his campaign, Breitbart devoted disproportionate attention to the topic.
What we find in our data is a network of mutually-reinforcing hyper-partisan sites that revive what Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid style in American politics," combining decontextualized truths, repeated falsehoods, and leaps of logic to create a fundamentally misleading view of the world. "Fake news," which implies made of whole cloth by politically disinterested parties out to make a buck of Facebook advertising dollars, rather than propaganda and disinformation, is not an adequate term. By repetition, variation, and circulation through many associated sites, the network of sites make their claims familiar to readers, and this fluency with the core narrative gives credence to the incredible.
Study: Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda
[Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, Hal Roberts, and Ethan Zuckerman/Columbia Journalism Review]
(via The Grugq)