A grandfather, estranged from his family and relatives, unable to visit his grandchildren because their parents worry about his growing vitriol. A daughter who rarely visits home any longer, save for the holidays, and even then must suffer through tortuous meals where family members peddle conspiracy theories. A mother whose children wince at the thought of her anger and xenophobia when they speak to her on the phone. These painful experiences are all too familiar to many American families, and they all have one culprit to thank: conservative media. All across the country, families are torn apart by members falling deeper and deeper into their respective rabbit-hole of radicalized thought. Many pundits and scholars have opined at the consequences of an over-consumption of conservative media, but I want to focus on why the path to the bottom of the rabbit-hole is so frictionless.
Megan Garber, in an article for The Atlantic, writes that conservative media “take[s] the familiar idioms of American democracy and wear[s] away at their common meanings.” She writes that terms like journalist come to mean ‘enemy of the people’, or that socialism suggests ‘Sweden-style social safety net’ or ‘looming threat to liberty,’ the interpretation all depends on who you ask. Conversing with someone who has developed ‘Fox Brain’ becomes increasingly challenging, due to the insular environment in which they live. Not only are millions of Americans deep inside this silo, but even the very President of the United States (reportedly telling Andrew Napolitano of Fox that “‘Everything I know about the Constitution, I learned from you on Fox & Friends.’”). Much of the reporting about the right-wing media phenomenon is anecdotal, however, in a highly anticipated publication, a team of researchers from the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard quantified the isolation of the conservative media ecosystem. This blog post, employing the quantitative evidence from the Berkman Klein Center report, outlines just how isolated and extreme the conservative media ecosystem is, and then, with readings from the course, connects this phenomenon with democratic backsliding in the United States.
In “Polarization and the Pandemic: American Political Discourse,” Yochai Benkler and a team of researchers illustrate several key features of the American media ecosystem: it is asymmetrically polarized, that partisanship wins over facts, disinformation is far more acute on the right, and that, promisingly, the conservative media’s power to control the narrative in mainstream media is more constrained than it was in 2016. These conclusions are drawn from research that focused specifically on the months of March through May 2020. Asymmetric polarization means that there is a tight, insular right wing that mainly links to itself and circulates information among itself, whereas the rest of the ecosystem is centered around professional outlets and publications. They write that “essentially, all of the media coverage amplified on the right served to deflect and reframe damaging coverage of the president…The sources cited by media sources on the left represents a familiar set of mainstream and left leaning media outlets: New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN.” It is also important to note that the dominance in large center and center-left media outlets is due to the size, funding, and professionalism.
This figure clearly illustrates the asymmetric polarization of the media ecosystem, and depicts how isolated and extreme right-wing media is. They conclude that partisan media ecosystems “are not hermetically sealed from outside news and influence; they are sophisticated systems that collectively curate and filter the news and create an interpretive lens.” When presented with the conclusion that the response of the United States government to the coronavirus pandemic was a failure that cost thousands of lives and deepened economic and social inequalities, “a large minority of Americans fundamentally disagree with this assessment.”
The polarization of the media ecosystem and the American electorate are inextricably linked. In many ways, they are a part of a self-serving cycle: information becomes recycled within each respective community, never to leave, driving polarization. There has always been polarization in America, but as Masha Krupenkin and Shanto Iyengar contend in their article The Strengthening of Partisan Affect, it has grown dramatically in the last two decades. They come to the conclusion that, “affective polarization in the United States has developed primarily because of increased hostility toward the out-party.”
Garber supports this assertion in her article writing that, “War is, at this point, Fox’s defining metaphor…On Fox, there are enemy combatants…The sides are always clear.” This pattern of increasing hostility towards the out-party, while not written in such powerful terms, can be reflected in Benkler’s research. He writes “The instinct in conservative media to defend the president against negative coverage and to treat mainstream media as a political opponent was established.” There is a unique tendency among conservative media to demonize the opposition, following the trends predicted by Krupenkin and Iyengar. When this demonization of the opposition occurs, democratic erosion certainly follows.
In an article entitled Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy, Jennifer McCoy and colleagues crystallize the relationship between growing polarization and democratic erosion. They write “We identify three possible negative outcomes for democracy— ‘gridlock and careening,’ ‘democratic erosion or collapse under new elites and dominant groups,’ and ‘democratic erosion or collapse with old elites and dominant groups.’ ” For McCoy, polarization is inherently relational, meaning that society increasingly aligns and sorts along a single dimension, and people define politics in terms of ‘Us’ versus ‘Them.’ This alignment has “pernicious consequences for democracy.”
The analysis of the media ecosystem by Yochai Benkler and his team depicts how the media ecosystem exists in two well-defined spheres, that are highly insular and interdependent. Conservative media is clearly isolated from the rest of the ecosystem, and is disproportionately prone to sharing disinformation and falsehoods. Krupenkin, Iyengar, and McCoy illustrates the potential damage that polarization can have on democracy when society begins to demonize opposition, and perceive society to be defined as ‘Us’ versus ‘Them.’ These two trends go hand in hand. As conservative media drives cleavages among Americans, polarization grows, ultimately threatening democracy and driving erosion.