How Media Fans the Flames of Culture War and Allows Fringe Figures to Gain Power


In our discussions of identity politics to this point I’ve mostly centered on left/right aspects and divides along race, explaining how statistics have been used in misleading ways to fear monger white conservatives into anti-immigration and supremacist attitudes, stoking their suspicion of any “other” and driving us to the edge of a cliff that half the population will willingly dive off. This post will dive into the media which surrounds our politics, analyzing the ways in which it profits off of radicalization and how companies such as Facebook have incentives to ignore, even encourage, the festering hatred on their platforms. American identity politics started as microcosms of radicalism that have made their way into the mainstream as we fall further down the rabbit hole on either side, accelerating fear and hatred among both sides in our two party system and preying on the lack of viable options besides Democrats and Republicans.

The establishment has full control of the status quo and they want to keep it that way. Media has played an increasingly large role in shaping how people take in information, showing us bits of a story that are hand picked according to our biases to make it seem as though the world will end if the “other” side wins. In reality we are all Americans living with the same goals, many of the same values, who hold the same traditions, cultures, and generally experience similar things in life. Yet we no longer live in reality. In these times of non-normalcy people look to stability, for some comfort that this rapid change will cease and we can go back to the way things were 20 years ago. Maybe they are biased against the increasingly accepted LGBTQ community, or aren’t comfortable in the new “PC” era because they want to express bias without consequence. Or perhaps it is the liberal suburban mom who claims to be ‘woke,’ yet sees the violent conflict of BLM protestors with police and just wants it to stop, choosing to believe the media’s portrayal of ‘dangerous’ and ‘out of control’ Antifa members while conveniently ignoring the rising domestic terrorism from the alt right.

This hypothetical white mom (who is a representation of MANY Gen X or older millennials), isn’t personally affected so what does it matter if we allow the status quo that officers can murder whoever they want without consequence. There is no thought outside of personal experience, so the media and establishment are counting on viewers to agree with their statements and be scared because they rely on hypothetical ‘what ifs’ to fear monger instead of presenting issues in their entirety. I.E. WHY the left is protesting so vehemently and finally had enough of police violence, HOW American law enforcement have brutalized and subverted POC communities for decades, WHAT the consequence of this brutality has been for black and brown families or even poor white folks. The point is that the media hand picks what they want to show and how they frame it, leaving out necessary details which explain the whole issue. Rather, upper and middle class viewers are left with images of burning trash cans and lines of armored police shooting at black clad protestors while voices behind the screen tell them those protestors are coming for their communities next.

The media perpetuates uncertainty and reactionary agendas such as this because it generates views, and thus money for them and advertisers, but also because it furthers the agenda of their establishment owners. Certain platforms have become hosts of viral misinformation that has enabled conspiracy movements and instilled distrust in pretty much every institution or individual. Social websites such as Facebook and Twitter have become a particular issue, and despite some installing fact check boxes that either disable or simply flag posts, it has still been shown that tweets or posts with “fake news” are up to 70% more likely to be shared. It has also been proven that putting notices by posts isn’t necessarily helping curb misinformation because it leads to an issue of users assuming all posts without the flag are true, not to mention Facebook’s “outrage algorithms” that incentivize outrageous content and create echo chambers. Facebook’s ‘whitelisting’ policy that shields high profile users from having posts removed allowed revenge porn, violent hate speech, and blatantly false information to be viewed over 16 billion times last year alone.

Plus, the first thing we see is most likely to be what sticks in our memory, and social media platforms incentivize people to create attention grabbing content with shocking headlines. It doesn’t matter if they come across the factual story later, they’ll still be biased from their first impression of what was going on.

As such, our digital lives have consistently created partisan bubbles where people are only shown content that serves as confirmation bias. For example, Facebook has an algorithm that shows you posts with similar tags and tries to keep you engaged on their site for as long as possible by constantly suggesting related content, even if that related content is about how ‘(((they)))’ are coming for white families and instills radicalism. Mark “The Sucky Zuccy” Zuckerberg has maintained the same sleazy morals to get clicks as he did when Facebook was created as a rating site for women’s attractiveness. There is no consideration for how the content affects people outside of the site, what disastrous consequences it can bring as misinformation, lies, or hatred is spread at the speed of light across the globe.

People turn to Facebook for virtually everything, especially older generations, and the content has increasing influence over their opinions; however the site happens to be the most prolific spreader of fake news. During the 2016 presidential election the platform was found to have directed users to untrustworthy websites (sites without sources or suspect credentials that blared propaganda) nearly 20% of the time. Trump voters and conservatives in general were found to have had the worst spread of this among their feeds, with nearly 60% viewing at least one untrustworthy site a month before the election. While fake news isn’t going to transform someone’s base political views, the effects it has are radicalizing people by exposing them to increasingly far fetched propaganda that Russian and Chinese governments, among others, have been found to spread as a means of distraction and division. (Similar to what the CIA has done all over). Russian operatives discovered during the Cold War that the more you inundate people’s brains with misinformation meant to scare, the easier they are to manipulate into complacency because they refuse to believe even the most basic reality.

For several decades the right has built up an unparalleled media infrastructure that acts as one big firehose of falsehood; a concept popularized by Russian assets which spews mass amounts of fake news and propaganda through TV, newspapers, and social media in order to confuse people and muddle what is actually going on. Politicians have had a handle on agitprop for years, learning from Edward Bernays the father of U.S. propaganda, who pioneered the ways we receive political messaging and was coincidentally Sigmund Freud’s nephew. They’ve understood psychological agitprop for over 100 years and had ample time to develop it through campaigns such as ‘torches of freedom’ cigarettes for women during WWII or working with the United Fruit Company and the CIA to overthrow a Guatemalan regime, modifying it to be pumped out through your grandma’s Facebook feed. 

Due to social media algorithms constantly showing you what they think you want to see based on your viewing and like history, Facebook and YouTube have suggested content that directly led down rabbit holes for hate groups such as Proud Boys or Rise Above Movement (RAM) to a vulnerable demographic posed for radicalization. This is typically adolescent men verging on adulthood, and even males into their 20’s who may feel cast out from ‘cancel culture,’ have religious values that they seek validation for, or feel general disenfranchisement from the realities of American life. A note that I want to make in regards to extremism; many people swayed to join these groups do so as reactions to trauma, mental health issues like depression, or desire to feel like they fit into a social group. The drive to feel supported and surrounded by like minded peers is fundamental to human existence, and as they search for acceptance groups like Proud Boys may affirm a deeply held ideological belief while advertising bonding and partaking in ‘traditional’ masculine activities, drawing someone deeper into irrationality as they explore. 

A group such as the Proud Boys also appeals to already underlying biases, emphasizing binary viewpoints while saying that the right’s oppression won’t stop until the one specific group causing their suffering such as Anitfa, Islam, BLM, or Jews is destroyed. The biggest irony is that media figures, politicians, and even leaders of these groups usually live in comfort due to their status, and to keep their status they require the funding, support, and constant attention of the audience they appeal to. Thus we have seen a rise of hateful rhetoric from Alex Jones, Caitlyn Bennett, Ben Shapiro and co. because they are guaranteed a certain status from spewing it, but then they get into a tricky situation where their rhetoric has to constantly be accelerationist, always louder and more conspiratorial than the last point to keep their audience hooked. Through their pursuit of individual status in the savage capitalist market, they funnel disenfranchised people into the arms of bad actors who lead groups that actually do want to kill Jews or African Americans from hate. If you recite something enough it will become fact to you, and unfortunately there is much ingrained racism and bias in our country due to its constant reinforcement that minority groups are the root of all issues to many. 

We are seeing a frightening rise in domestic terrorism as young men who live in small communities become more unsure of their futures and place in the world, turning to violence and a community of white nationalism as an outlet for their anger over these manufactured enemies. These people (mostly men in terms of violence,) feel isolated and in danger from outsider groups such as LGBTQ or immigrants, who they have been told are polluting society and endangering their children by these false idols and propaganda. Thus out of fear they turn to the solutions offered by the right wing rhetoric that they’ve been exposed to their whole lives; arming themselves to the teeth in anticipation of an impending liberal takeover or some other apocalyptic event that will cause mass violence and destruction. They are also likely to turn to the radical groups espousing those fears since these organizations probably include neighbors, friends, or other people they are acquainted with while offering shared values and a sense of protection against whatever threats come knocking. 

Hatred and violent radicalization is prodded along by actors such as Greene.

We have very few resources that offer communities deradicalization, and many folks don’t even want to bother helping rural populations because they view them as hopeless and too out of touch. This only solidifies generational prejudice and adds to their feelings of being outcasts, so many have unchecked hatred that festers, manifesting through the actual white supremacist rhetoric of groups like Proud Boys or personalities like Rush Limbaugh. On top of this, American individualism encourages brutality and violence, young men are pressured to live up to an ideal of masculinity that entails a ‘macho’ facade and glorifies war soyoung men in rural areas turn to the only thing they know. When you’ve grown up without exposure to other ideas, people, or lifestyles, of course you’re going to be most comfortable around people that look and talk like you while being wary of outsiders; it is an ingrained biological trait for survival in an uncertain primitive landscape. Add on a vague enemy such as ‘socialists’ or ‘communists’ that could include nearly anyone you encounter, and you have a population primed with suspicion, armed, and prepared to violently confront anyone who has a different lifestyle.

The longer you go without exposure to something the more afraid of it you become, since our brains have a knack for convincing us of the worst outcomes, and conservative media prey upon misconstrued stereotypes and horror stories that are only perpetuated with the separation of cultures. It has also been shown that media tends to lead its audiences to overestimate the danger of some threat that they are fear mongering about. The concept is the same as us feeling detached from the other side of the world and uncertain about the motivations of other groups; now think about how disconnected from other areas of our own country we feel, let alone another continent. Without first hand interaction you have no understanding of someone, never able to see their behaviors, mannerisms, or emotions that we use to connect through human experience. Their struggles and desires would make no sense because you’ve only known yours and those of the people immediately around you. Echo chambers only increase the group mentality and affirmation that one specific way of thinking is the only correct way, and our society has been reinforcing them now more than ever. 

Our modern political sphere is chalk full of figures looking to take advantage of our uncertainty during chaotic times, sowing further fear among their followers while presenting themselves as knowing the grand solution for our ills. Social media amplifies and quickens the spread of their rhetoric, and we have turned to elected officials or other charismatic individuals to instill hope that things will get better. Unfortunately these figures are usually putting on these crusades as a power grab, with underlying Caesar complexes and a lack of conviction beyond what garners them public support, thus power.

Someone like Kamala Harris is a perfect example of a convictionless individual who generates the appearance otherwise; great at manufacturing emotions and hope within her audience, but shaky at best when it comes to actual values or policy actions. On the campaign trail Harris made promises to work for cannabis legalization, law enforcement reform, student debt forgiveness, and alleviating the crisis at the border while very clearly asserting how it was the right’s fault that we were experiencing these issues through heavy appeals to the war on drugs and other tropes her leftist audience would support. In this manner Kamala has done identity politics 101; identifying a problem, clearly blaming one group for its outcome, then mobilizing her audience around Harris being the solution against the oppressive enemy. 

When looking past the surface level rhetoric it becomes clear how hollow Harris’ sentiments really are, as with nearly every politician in America, because our campaigns are structured around money not character or policy. In her career as California DA, a position she received via promotion from her significant other (not questioning her ability, though it is necessary to point out), Harris was one of the driving forces behind increased convictions and harsher penalties for drug related charges, additionally helping to develop the three strike law and generally contributing to the prison industrial explosion while sending thousands to prison for a gram of cannabis. Since being a part of the highest office in America she has refused to take any action towards making good on promises to legalize or decriminalize cannabis, abandoning prisoners she claims to be a champion for while refusing to acknowledge how much she and her fellow Democrats have contributed to the oppression. Not to mention the fiasco she and others have mishandled at the border and the recent revelation that their promised student debt relief was no more than hot air.

Despite making no steps towards reform once elected, leftist audiences still blindly overlook Harris’ track record as a notorious cop and somehow think she’ll change. The fact that she and Biden claimed to support drug or prison reform is laughable, and the ways that they have directly profited off the war on drugs through political power or donations while quickly switching up rhetoric to make it seem otherwise is sadly emblematic of establishment politicians, yet their audience is too invested in the false idols they see on screen. (Watch Dems lose midterm elections in 2022, attempt to relieve student debt in a majority Republican caucus, then throw up their hands when it inevitably fails and say that if you want debt relief you’ll have to vote for them in again in 2024. Thus the cycle of inaction continues, only becoming serious for them when establishment profit is threatened).

Another example of how identity politics leads to reactionary agendas with no substance is the fact that many prominent Democrats criticized BLM and Colin Kaepernick when the movement first gained national attention, but then as soon as they saw Trump and openly racist Republicans criticize it they backpedaled to appease their constituents. I guess that they realized no pushback against Trump would expose them as the equally bigoted individuals they are, so it was decided that a performative posthumous defense would suffice. It is mind boggling to me that establishment Dems don’t react with half the rage to Biden’s administration doing the same crimes against humanity and pushing the same racist rhetoric with nicer wording as they would when Trump tweeted something. Charismatic leaders don’t really have the convictions they claim to, and are often pushing agendas through our government for individual gain. They will appeal to a specific ideology and garner as many different groups’ support by worming their way into favor, then once in power will do absolutely nothing that was claimed they would, except for actions that serve their own interests and help them maintain power.

The endless culture wars waged by Republicans and spoon fed to voters by their media machine serve the same superficial purpose, leading to a rise of many unique individuals trying to profit off of the propaganda storm. Someone like Tucker Carlson, Steven Crowder, or any of these other ideological grifters at the forefront of the alt right movement spew the same manufactured talking points from conservative think tanks that are designed to appeal specifically to the implicit bigotry or biases within listeners. These false idols draw a following with their confident and over the top personas, lacking any content beyond surface level (often false) narratives that make viewers hate the “other” so much they don’t see them as rational humans who experience life in the same ways. Their audience doesn’t bother to verify if the claims are legitimate because they see these talking heads as trustworthy in a golden light, so misinformation and hate spreads like wildfire. Thus prejudice and white supremacy strengthens its hold on our country, with more voters being blinded from the reality of issues and living in their own echo chambers of discourse. 

The figures like this who rise to power based on emotional rhetoric and a superhuman aura, no matter the underlying ideology,  serve as wrecking balls to the institutions of their state. The constant need to deliver for the base and project an image of fighting for them usually results in looking for new enemies to blame or new outrages to pursue, and has led to a reality where we are constantly on edge over who to trust. The paranoia of leaders like Trump spreads throughout the administration and weakens the government’s legitimacy. His administration, like many other identity centered (borderline fascist) ones, featured sweeping purges that cleared his entire staff, accusations against appointed officials that they weren’t loyal if they didn’t gratify him enough, and an absolute refusal to admit wrongdoing. Purges are a common feature of these types of regimes (Democrats do it to some extent too,) because once ascended to peak position, another group is needed as a scapegoat to focus their conviction and hold power. This leads to a government where nobody wants to offer solutions for fear of having that anger directed at them, and a population that is increasingly dedicated towards purging opposition and primed for violence while holding the rhetoric of an individual figure as holy.

Take the text messages revealed from January 6th in which Republican leadership urged Trump to call off his fanatics, his own son pleading him to make a statement, yet when the crisis was finally over the GOP spun numerous lies to take the heat off their own back. (It was Antifa, it was an FBI set up, it was just a calm sit in not a deadly riot, etc.) Because media, American culture, and our economic structure have corralled us into personal bubbles of maximum individualism we simply don’t have conversations within the realm of reality anymore; we mainly see debates sparked by false information with people living in ignorance as to the true scope of events.

Thank you for reading, this was a bit longer than I had originally intended but I feel like some valuable points were touched upon. We will continue with the discussion of identity for another couple posts, especially as it pertains to the January 6th investigation. Again, thank you.

Sources

  • Violent Extremism in America, Ryan Andrew Brown, Todd C. Helmus, Rajeev Ramchand, Alina I. Palimaru, Sarah Weilant, Ashley L. Rhoades, Liisa Hiatt. 2021.
  • Benjamin Studebaker and Edmund Wilson in their podcast “Political Theory 101.” Cannot recommend this enough for insightful conversation into political philosophy, stretching all the way back to its origins.
  • “Facebook files, part I,” Horwitz, Jeff, 2021. WSJ
  •  “MIT Sloan Research about Social Media, Misinformation and Elections,” Brown, Sara. 2020. MIT Sloan.
  •  “Exposure to Untrustworthy Websites in the 2016 Election,” Guess, Andrew, Nyhan, Brendan. 2020.

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