The Algorithm

The media's new business model is propaganda.

A few weeks ago, in Los Angeles, a brawl broke out on the street in front of a spa in Koreatown. A video had gone viral in late June of a woman berating a staff member of Wi Spa for allegedly allowing a trans woman to use the women’s locker room. The trans woman, the angry customer claimed, had strutted around with her exposed penis in full view of children. A giddy Tucker Carlson showed the video to his national audience, applauding the irate customer for her bravery while voicing not a word of skepticism about her claims, for which there is no evidence and some reason to believe was entirely made up. Soon after, an “anti-pervert protest” took place. Black-clad counterprotesters mobilized to confront the “transphobes.” Physical violence ensued.

This much we know for certain. For other details, we’re forced to rely on the reports of national media outlets. Not so long ago, that would have been a straightforward and relatively non-problematic proposition. But as the field of journalism has been forced to undergo drastic changes in response to the broken revenue model of the news business, that’s no longer the case. Increasingly, relying on mainstream media accounts is like relying on official updates from the U.S. military regarding developments in a war, or press releases from a corporate PR firm describing a company’s recent stellar performance. Some of the facts you’re presented with are probably accurate — maybe even all of them — but you have to start with the assumption that the whole thing is by and large propaganda.

For example, here is a New Republic article recounting the details of the melee in Los Angeles. The author of the article lives in New York, and doesn’t appear to have been present at the protest (I emailed her to ask but received no reply). The reporting is cobbled together from videos on YouTube. The protesters, the reporter declares definitively, were “Proud Boys” and “QAnon adherents.” The evidence for both is hearsay. The Proud Boys claim is from an activist who was shooting video from his phone. The evidence for the QAnon claim appears to be from a story by a Guardian reporter who, unlike her TNR counterpart, was actually present, but who didn’t in fact claim that the protesters were “QAnon adherents,” just that they chanted a slogan that is popular with QAnon types. (A Los Angeles Magazine freelancer who was present claimed, for whatever it’s worth, that he recognized “a number of protesters from past QAnon rallies, though I know not all of them subscribe to the conspiracy.”) The New Republic account goes on to describe how these right-wing ruffians “harassed journalists” and attacked defenseless bystanders, some of which is backed up by video. Then the police showed up and “targeted trans rights supporters and anti-fascist activists … beating at least one of them with batons, firing rubber bullets, and arresting 40 people.” The article warns ominously of the “right-wing outrage machine” that is ramping up “attacks on trans people.”

There’s nothing extraordinary about the New Republic piece. I’m not dissecting it because it’s special, but because it’s typical. Any number of articles followed the exact same script, whether they were published in Vice or The Daily Beast or Jezebel. The debatable presence of the Proud Boys and QAnon is a staple in these reports, as is the absence of any interviews with anyone present, the omission of any reference to violence from the counterprotesters, and the exclusive reliance on YouTube videos and the one article by a reporter who was actually there to piece together the reportage.

These aren’t so much reports, in other words, as write-ups. There isn’t even an attempt at original fact-finding. The sourcing is almost entirely derived from the posts and videos of left-wing activists, which are taken at face value. The unquestioned assumption is that everyone who showed up to protest the spa were bigoted, monstrous people, and there’s no curiosity about what else might constitute their points of view. The takeaway — that a menacing cabal of right-wing extremists is putting the rights and safety of trans people at risk — is precisely on-message with the activists whose side the reporters are blindly taking.

By all appearances, the reporters watched some videos, discerned the narrative being presented to them, and wrote a book report on it. This is journalism in the same way that television recaps are journalism.

The New Republic was once one of the most prestigious magazines in America. But more than almost any other national outlet, it has been pummeled by the collapse of the old advertising-based business model of mass media. It has suffered through failed buyout after failed buyout, including one by a well-intentioned tech billionaire that led to a staff revolt and mass resignations. For a long while, TNR’s writers and editors clung jealously to the lofty ideals of the journalism profession of the twentieth century, resisting the industry’s rapid descent into click farming as a result of the diversion of its ad revenues to Facebook and Google. But that version of the profession doesn’t exist anymore. Inevitably, the new economic forces shaping the industry caught up even to the vaunted New Republic, and it was assimilated into the vast digital monoculture that is the journalism of today. Now, the outlet formerly known as “the in-flight magazine of Air Force One” has to wrestle in the muck with all the other left-of-center political tabloids, defending its dwindling share of the market by competing for the attention of liberal readers with sensational stories that stoke their anxieties, flatter their moral egos, and confirm their biases. This is what journalism has become.

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In Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers, Andrey Miroshnichenko describes the drift of digital media toward what he calls “native propaganda.” The term is derived from “native advertising,” which, under a prior media business model, was an innovative new experiment in revenue generation.

Native advertising emerged at the tail end of the collapse of the advertising-based business model. That was back when people still browsed websites instead of finding every article through social media, and news outlets were still attempting to sustain themselves by selling website real estate to advertisers, and searching for a competitive advantage that the news business could leverage over its non-journalistic rivals in selling ads on the internet. Someone came up with the idea of “native advertising,” in which ads would be written by real journalists and presented in the style of a news article, to confuse readers into believing that they weren’t being advertised to, but were instead reading a recommendation by a disinterested reporter writing for a trusted news outlet. The content was still advertising, but it was “native” to the format, style and sensibility of the outlet it was published on.

Today, the advertising model has been largely replaced by what Miroshnichenko calls the “subscription solicited as donation” model. Under this model, readers are turned into paying subscribers, but the transaction is more than a merely commercial one. It’s more like a combination of a traditional subscription, in which you’re paying for news content that you wouldn’t be able to access otherwise, and a membership solicitation of the sort that your local NPR station makes several times a year. Readers are called upon to support the outlet not just to get past a paywall, but also for value-based, altruistic reasons: to support “independent journalism,” to uphold democracy, or, increasingly, to help give voice to the oppressed by funding reporters who will use their journalism as a tool for advocacy and activism.

News outlets, in other words, are selling themselves to partisan audiences as the producers and propagators of the political narratives those audiences favor. For a right-wing outlet, these favored narratives may be the spread of cancel culture, or the forgotten middle Americans who are standing up to the coastal elites, or the menace of Antifa. For left-wing outlets, they may be the rising threat of QAnon, or the infiltration of police forces by white supremacists, or the anti-vaxxers who are killing innocent Americans. In both cases, what is being sold is not news, or even editorial opinion. Indeed, the product that readers are buying isn’t even necessarily for their own personal consumption. What’s being sold is not a good, but a service: the service of pushing a particular political narrative onto a mass audience of Americans. It’s “native propaganda”: propaganda disguised as journalism.

One need only look at the membership pitches of outlets on both the left and the right to see it. Typically these pitches cite the outlets’ abilities to get their stories out to a wide swathe of readers — readers other than the prospective subscriber himself — as a benefit that they provide to that prospective subscriber. If the subscription were a simple commercial transaction, in which readers were merely paying to access news behind a paywall, this pitch would make no sense. It would be like a shoe company trying to pitch you on how many other consumers they’ll be able to sell shoes to if you support them with your purchase.

But the pitch is not merely about selling readers the news, the way a shoe company might sell you a pair of shoes. It’s a pitch aimed at ideologically motivated readers, selling the outlet’s ability to bring its ideologically loaded news product to other readers, whose political opinions might then be shaped by consuming that reporting. Subscribers, in other words, are being asked to support the outlet’s capacity to propagandize to others.

This puts the journalists who work for those outlets in a different position than they would have been in ten or twenty years ago. If the Wi Spa fracas had taken place in the year 2000, a writer for The New Republic might have been expected to go to L.A., interview participants on either side of the protests, learn new facts and, if possible, come up with an interesting, novel explanation of what transpired. The product of this work would then be sold to subscribers as news, while the subscribers’ attention was sold, in turn, to advertisers. This was the revenue model that paid The New Republic’s bills back then, and everybody else’s.

A journalist for The New Republic in 2021 has it easier. The New Republic’s subscribers aren’t paying for the investigative prowess and sharp insights that only a reporter for The New Republic can bring to a story like the Wi Spa protests; indeed, they can find a virtually identical version of the same article, with all of the same details, on any number of other platforms, including for free on Twitter. What TNR’s subscribers are paying for is the same thing that Vice’s subscribers and The Intercept’s subscribers and The Daily Wire’s subscribers are paying for, which is the outlet’s reliable political spin on events and its ability to get that spin out to the broader public. A TNR journalist in 2021, then, is expected only to selectively aggregate the relevant facts and links to videos, shape them into the preconceived political narrative favored by her readers, and write it all out longhand — all of which she can do without ever stepping away from her laptop or picking up a phone. Someday soon, she’ll probably be replaced by a bot.

This arrangement works particularly well, of course, for activists, in precisely the way that, 13 years ago, Fox News’ exploitation of the Tea Party story worked out beautifully for the Tea Party. Like Fox’s anchors and pundits, journalists of this type effectively serve the same purpose for the activists they cover that PR firms serve for corporate clients, though the economics break down a little differently. Activists don’t hire journalists, obviously, the way corporations hire PR consultants. But the outlets those journalists work for nevertheless generate income from the favorable coverage they bestow on those activists. The activists these outlets cover tend to share the same political values and beliefs as the outlet’s audience. By disseminating the activists’ message, the outlets serve their readers’ political ends. Having done so, they then ask their readers for financial support in the form of subscriptions. This is the business model. Within this loop, everybody’s interests are served by this happy, synergistic relationship: the activists get their message pushed out to a national audience; the outlets provide value to their ideologically-motivated readers who they can then convert into paying subscribers; and the readers are comforted by the knowledge that their favorite media outlets are defending their values by speaking truth to power — specifically, their truth to the power of their political enemies.

There’s a lot of room for getting the facts wrong with this biased-by-design approach, of course. One has only to look at Fox’s coverage of any number of issues throughout its history to see how the media can create its own detached, curated reality when it slavishly panders to its audience’s ideological priors. But that isn’t even the main issue here; there’s a fair chance that TNR, Vice, The Daily Beast and Jezebel got most if not all of the details right on the Wi Spa story, even if they were selectively reported. The issue is that the activity in question isn’t even reporting.

No actual journalism transpired in the crafting of The New Republic’s article on the Wi Spa ruckus, unless you’re willing to count the simple collation of facts reported elsewhere and the curation of links to videos as “journalism.” If anyone conducted any actual journalism in the creation of TNR’s story, it was the people on the ground shooting the video that the story depended upon. But most of those people weren’t journalists; they were activists. Which brings us to the most important characteristic of what Miroshnichenko calls “postjournalism”: increasingly, media outlets are no longer in the business of finding the news, because all of the information that would constitute “the news” is already online for everyone to see, posted and uploaded by activists and other interested parties. The media no longer reports the news, in Miroshnichenko’s analysis — it validates it. It adds its establishment imprimatur to information that’s already in your news feed, so that you can point to it as an authoritative source in your online discussions and arguments with others. The reporter may have done literally nothing more than you could, and probably would, if you had watched the videos posted to Twitter and found yourself sufficiently angered by them to write a long Facebook screed. But your Facebook screed doesn’t have a New Republic logo on it.

The consequences of this business model in the real world can be summed up in a word: polarization. There’s a perfect alignment of interests between the media, its consumers, and professional political agitators in stoking fear, animosity, and mutual recrimination among the public. The media industry cultivates its only remaining revenue stream. News consumers see their ideological prejudices affirmed by brand name media outlets, and comfort themselves in the belief that the media is doing its job to ensure that their worldview prevails in the public debate. Activists get free PR. Everyone benefits as we all nurture our contempt for one another over the course of a news cycle. Then, once that news cycle is exhausted, media outlets, with the help of activists, make sure that a new outrage flares up to begin the cycle all over again. The survival of an entire industry depends on it.

In the case of the Wi Spa story, it didn’t take much time at all. Within a couple of weeks, there was another violent skirmish, this time in front of the Cedars-Sinai breast cancer clinic, also in L.A.. This flare-up was over a different hot button issue, but it followed the same script.

Like every health care facility I’ve been in post-vaccination, the Cedars-Sinai clinic still had a mask mandate in place. Maybe a dozen people showed up to protest this tyrannical infringement on their liberties, aware, I think it’s safe to assume, that the action was crack cocaine to the native propagandist-journalists of the left-of-center media world. To make it even more enticing, some of the protestors wore black t-shirts that read, “COVID IS A SCAM.” Predictably, counterprotesters showed up, including members of Antifa. In short order, fist fights erupted. Lots of smart phones were on hand to document the squabbles. The tabloids pounced, as readily as if they were following stage directions. It was kayfabe, all the way down.

On an episode of my favorite podcast, Red Scare, co-host Dasha Nekrasova, describing the Wi Spa protests, passingly referred to the whole affair as “the algorithm.” It’s an apt metaphor. Just as YouTube’s digital algorithm serves us up ever more extreme content to keep us glued to our screens, the human algorithm that governs the media’s new business model scours our newsfeeds for catalysts for outrage and amplifies them. Political provocateurs, from anti-maskers to Antifa LARPers, understand the algorithm and exploit it, performing their assigned roles in the streets, in front of their iPhone cameras. The rest of us consume it with glee, every bite reminding us that we stand on the right side of history, unlike the rest of those morons with whom we’re forced to share a country. It’s a perfectly functional dysfunctional system. Everybody wins while everybody loses.