The conservative media system
Importantly, such a deep story is not only an organic set of perceptions citizens tell one another; it is also fed and validated by a media system that has fundamentally transformed in recent decades. Most significant here is the development of an alternative media system supporting conservative causes. Intensifying after Goldwater’s 1964 loss, the conservative media movement has long seen itself as oppressed by a more powerful cultural, political, and media establishment (Hemmer 2016). This populist ethos has been a hallmark of the conservative talk radio of the 1980s and 1990s, and a mainstay of Fox News’s identity.
The billionaire funding of much conservative media is, of course, not populist in any economic sense. And here we must be careful not to place the blame for our disinformation order too squarely on populism per se; because suspicion of government, scientific expertise, and the news media have been assiduously cultivated by very un-populist factions within the conservative movement, most of all those devoted to advancing laissez-faire economic ideology and policy (Hacker and Pierson 2016). When their opposition to the government’s role in managing public problems has run up against scientific evidence, such as in the case of climate change, this movement has developed tactics to misinform and confuse the public and systematically undermine public faith in scientific and journalistic institutions (Oreskes and Conway 2011).
But many conservative media display a powerfully populist style, conveyed in tabloid aesthetics; deviations from and overt rejections of ‘high modern’, ‘aspirational’ mainstream journalism; and repeated claims to be the lone voices of reason in a liberal media system; they project cultural populism (Peck 2019). Headlined by Fox News but now stylistically joined by a wide array of both mainstream and marginal digital sources, this ecosystem provides a steady supply of stories that map onto, reinforce, and elaborate the deep story; they also dabble, to varying degrees and with varying levels of concern for fact, in apocalyptic warnings that American culture is being systematically undermined (Polletta and Callahan 2017). As Benkler and colleagues (2018) have shown, this is genuinely an alternative system of media outlets, significantly more detached from centrist journalistic organisations than partisan media on the left. On the left, we suspect, the lack of a widely held and coherent deep story, combined with the tighter coupling of left political conversations to the political-media centre, has prevented the development of a misinformation apparatus on a scale comparable to that of the right (Benkler et al. 2018).
Misinformation in the social sharing system
Today, the long legacy of American populism and ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ (see Sedgwick 2003) and an explicitly oppositional partisan media apparatus recombine with social media. The new attention economics of the social sharing economy democratise individuals’ opportunities to communicate and establish major financial incentives (alongside any political agenda) for outlets and individuals to accrue audiences — primarily accomplished by stimulating anger and indignation in order to induce sharing across social media networks (Pickard 2019). Here, the plentiful supply of mis-, dis-, and malinformation meets citizens feeling acute resentment and social deprivation.
The unprecedented speed and reach of messages in this system are having effects we are only beginning to contemplate. Unlike earlier conspiracy theories, which were necessarily conveyed in relatively scarce and infrequent pamphlets and books, today’s misinformation is reproduced and circulated on a daily basis. And although the evidence of comprehensively walled-off “echo chambers” is thin, the products of a substantial sub-ecology of disinformation that runs from 4chan, 8chan and Reddit into Breitbart and more establishment media (including the President’s Twitter feed) can provide sceptical citizens with a daily ‘inoculation’ against more mainstream interpretations of events (Stroud 2019).
Further, as Zuckerman (2019) points out, there are substantial social and entertainment dimensions to the games of interpretation that take place in online communities such as Reddit, 4chan, and QAnon; there, conspiracy theorising is actively peer produced (Starbird et al. 2019). Harkening back to the days of Father Coughlin or Joe McCarthy, the excitement is still in the assembly of innumerable clues and in fitting them to an interpretation that reveals the fissures in official narratives of events and buttresses a satisfying understanding of the world. But the activity is now massively distributed and prolific.
This reveals several important points about misinformation and its populist connections in our era. We might do well to distinguish fully fledged conspiracy theories (of the sort peddled by McCarthy, or, today, Alex Jones or QAnon) from other forms of more piecemeal misinformation that are invented by online entrepreneurs of disinformation and circulated by partisan networks through digital media. The latter mis- or disinformation is, as Muirhead and Rosenblum (2019) put it, ‘conspiracy without the theory’. This is the sort of misinformation promoted by Trump and is driven by the need ‘less to explain than to affirm’; examining its information content misses its purpose of conveying identity solidarity. Here, the authoritarianism of Trump’s populism is clear: in his pronouncements of clear falsehoods, without even a coherent conspiratorial hypothesis, he announces his dismissal of any ‘collective effort to produce agreed-upon facts and reach consensus on the correspondence between assertions and reality’ (Waisbord 2018, 2—3) and his intent to exercise power without democratic constraint.
What Muirhead and Rosenblum may overlook, however, is the power of the deep story to serve as a meta-narrative device into which both elaborated conspiracy theories and everyday, mundane misinformation can be set. With a widespread underlying narrative describing the illegitimacy of political opponents, the government, and the press, variations on the theme (the “deep state” seeks to destroy Trump, Hillary Clinton leads a paedophilia ring in Washington) may seem plausible or, at the least, satisfyingly irritating to East Coast liberal snobs.