Alternative Media: You Are What You Eat

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Fake news. It’s the finger that everyone likes to point, except for at themselves. It’s the new schoolyard insult. And it’s what now sums up the relationship between politics and the media.

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I like many others have been constantly reading throughout mainstream media about Trump’s rocky relationship with the top news organisations. Most recently they’ve been deemed by the president as the ‘enemy of the American people’. But he holds a special place for other news organisations, those that view the mainstream media as a whirlwind of conspiracy theories. While most of the world have their head in their hands wondering what the heck is going on, you have to ask what lies on the other side of the fence. Low and behold: Alternative news.

This week in an effort to understand the other side, I delved into what Wikipedia calls “Alternative media (U.S. Political Right)”. What I didn’t realise in the offset of this experiment was just how intense it would be. I initially aimed to cover as many news sources in this category as possible, but ended up mesmerised by two big ones: Breitbart News and Infowars.com. This is by no means an accredited method of research, but I do have three general observations that quickly emerged in my mission to understand the overwhelming phenomenon that is American political opinion.

  1. They’ve clearly picked a side.

First of all, I should be transparent about the fact that I typically consume left-wing media, or ‘neutral’ media, that is, organisations that claim to practice unbiased journalism (although I strongly believe there is no such thing). This meant that even from the start, everything I was about to consume was obviously going to seem much more infused with opinion than my typical sources. I was surprised however at how much nuanced bias was injected into alternative media. In the coverage of the terrorist attack in Manchester for instance, Breitbart News wrote a story ‘update’:

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Probably similar to most people who would’ve read this living in the UK – which is likely few and far between – I found it extremely far-fetched that before they even knew the identity of the attacker, they predicted it was purposely timed to coincide with the murder of a well-known American soldier. All I could think was ‘I can’t imagine this jihadist ‘loser’ (Trump’s word, not mine) knows who Lee Rigby even is’. Okay, perhaps that’s presumptuous, but it was such a loose connection slipped into the central synopsis of this unfolding news story out of Manchester. And this seemed to be a repeated occurrence at Breitbart. The only way I could really make sense of it was to think of their readership. They need a relatable aspect of the story that brings foreign shock and fear closer to home. After all, where even is this city called Manchester?!

  1. It’s simple.

When I watch news on TV or read a newspaper article, I expect to see multiple angles of a story. The world is not black and white and nor should be the way we portray it. Or so I thought. In my week of alternative media, the Alex Jones Show on infowars.com was a revelation. Every day of listening was like being at a heavy metal concert with strobe lights flashing and having a preacher screaming into your ear all at once.

In their coverage of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, I was surprised at how critical they were of their beloved President – to be fair, they blamed his team for most of it, but they weren’t particularly thrilled with the trip’s outcomes and here are two main reasons why: 1. There isn’t enough money for Trump to save global economies, only to save the American economy. To add some profound colour to this statement, they added “I don’t want to sell out for a trinket the way the Indians sold Manhattan for some beads.” And 2. There is no difference between Saudi Arabia and ISIS, with a small side note to this one: “There’s a bit of a distinction but no difference and it’s because of Sharia law”.

Wow. On the first point – I mean, if economics is that simple, why on earth is the US in a mountain of debt? Surely Trump would’ve been able to sort that out by now… And on the second, if it’s all the same, why isn’t the so-called Islamic State a UN member yet?

It’s not hard to see some of the inherent issues with these claims. Global issues cannot be broken down quite that easily and in trying to do so, Alex Jones raises some serious ethical questions. But then again the show is appealing to a certain audience, where perhaps the world is less overwhelming, and more digestible when described in these terms. I also noticed the show has a tendency to spell out tricky words – does that say something about their audience? Your guess is as good as mine…

  1. They have EPIC advertising.

If you thought the shopping channel was full on, listen to the Alex Jones Show. I found myself on multiple occasions cracking up on the tube home at just how much their ads matched everything stereotype of Southern USA. My personal favourite was for 10-year shelf life pre-cooked bacon. Yum! You could also fuel up with a supplement using plant derivatives from the Amazon – perfect to prepare your body for the battle against liberalism. Or you could just enjoy silly ‘mocumentary’ ads on those idiot liberal shmucks out in California. While ads are not news coverage or commentary, they are targeted to audiences most likely to make a purchase. So what do these ads say about their potential customers? Again, you don’t have to read between the lines to get to the bottom of the tactics here. They very purposefully shove it right in your face.

And so after all was said and done, my week of acquainting myself with alternative media was done. And I could breathe a big sigh of relief. It was tough work! On Monday I was engaged and giggling about the humour and irony of what I was consuming. By Friday, I avoided listening to anything at all – I just couldn’t take any more. I reached a point where I felt more at ease not knowing any news at all. Was there a silver lining of the week? It definitely made me rethink the media I normally consume. If one side seemed so arbitrarily biased, could it be possible I was blinded to this on the other side? Bias may be more subdued in some media than others, but in the end we don’t always look for it. We become accustomed and seek the stories we can accept as truth. It must go to show – you really are what you eat.

Some of my favourites courtesy of Breitbart:

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Polarising the Picture

Trumping the Audience

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Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Fountain Park in Fountain Hills, Arizona. ©Gage Skidmore

It seems every day now there are news stories erupting that trump the last (no pun intended). From Brexit, to extremist terrorist attacks, to the chaos of American politics leading into November’s election, the world is continually on edge and appears to be tearing at the seams. But is this simply a trend of media storms, or is our world shifting to a more extreme place where shock and bold actions are the only way to provoke change?

There’s nothing the Western media bites at quite like American politics. As arguably the most powerful player of the West, the US has a tendency to shock the rest of us with conservative, out-of-date policies that protect so-called ‘American values’ (I say it like this because it has been made abundantly clear that a large portion of the US do not live and breathe these stereotypes, for instance the Second Amendment). But this has become only the bare bones of what has evolved into one of the most heated, controversial, and comedic elections in American history that has the rest of the world scratching their heads. Donald Trump has somehow managed to overshadow the usual Republican stances and turn up the temperature with bold statements on immigration (I think most of us have lost count of how many countries he’s commented on at this point), domestic racism, sexism and violence, torture of war criminals, and abortion, just to name a few. The bigger issue is that he can’t seem to keep his mouth shut and contradicts himself, making wishy-washy statements left and right – to the point that even some of the most notorious right-wing Republicans struggle to stick by his side.

After all that’s been said and done – including bad-naming a Gold Star family, which is probably the most un-American thing you can do – how has he managed to keep support and still even have a minute shot at the grand prize? As a starting point, let’s break down his support. According to a study by the Washington Post, Trump voters are primarily white, male, and poor. There is also a significant gap between male and female support, with women voters 19 percentage points less than men. Unsurprisingly, he also holds the vote for the less educated population and people who identify as white non-evangelicals or Catholics – although this study was done shortly before Pope Francis denounced Trump for his brilliant ‘Mexican wall idea’. Now to my knowledge, there is no statistical evidence to correlate Americans who have never left the US (i.e. without a passport) to the uneducated demographic of Trump supporters, but I think in this case it may be safe to assume that there is a high correlation. This means that public opinion of what occurs beyond the US borders is fed through media and key influencers, namely politicians. But what’s different about Trump is he has done a masterful job at speaking their language. To some of us, his speeches sound like a bad YouTube rant; he repeats himself constantly with buzzwords like ‘terrific’, ‘fantastic’, losers vs. winners, the list goes on. But to others – say white, poor males – these are easy words to live by and believe in.

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Supporter of Donald Trump at a rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. ©Gage Skidmore

A meme circulated online not too long ago stating that in a 1998 interview with People magazine, Donald Trump said if he ran for presidency, he’d run as a Republican because “they’re the dumbest group of voters in the country”. Turns out not only was the quote a fake, but the image was taken from an interview he did with Oprah that touched on politics, specifically America’s trade deals. If you watch the clip, what Trump says makes a lot of sense – and funnily sounds more intelligent than most of what he’s spat out throughout this campaign. On the opposing side of this, wealthy Republicans have been mixed on support for Trump, including the Koch brothers who chose to support Ted Cruz in the primaries and are only now agreeing to meet with Trump. On the podcast This American Life, a Republican donor talks about how his view of Trump flipped a switch through one meeting with him, saying his personality and charm won them over without even discussing his political views. Some might say this is predictable, being that Trump spends his life schmoozing with the top dogs of Wall Street, but what we may be looking at is a mastermind of communication. From either side of the spectrum, there’s no doubt that Trump has an artistry in manipulation, to the point that I would argue ‘knowing his audience’ has been the pinpoint of his success.

But let’s get back to my initial question: is this all just a media stunt taking headlines or does it represent a significant shift in political extremism? Turns out, his communication is a key component to the answer. As we’ve seen Trump makes big statements with big implications using simple words. As a businessman, he knows what sells and what’s memorable, both at home and abroad. And because he took a different approach that took little consideration of ‘political correctness’, the people that support him not only finally feel like they have a voice, but an influencer that they understand. American society has not necessarily been benefitting these people – the recession of 2008 hit the lower tiers of the American population and with manufacturing industries continually shifting away from the West, many populations have been left in the dust with little guidance or hope. As we saw with Brexit (which will be the subject of a future blog), people are looking for change and are seizing opportunities, whether it’s the right path or not. What Trump has tapped into is a cry for help, even from those who don’t necessarily know what to cry for.

I imagine it’s fairly obvious from this blog that I do not support the ol’ Donald. I sincerely hope for the sake of global security that he does not take the win come November. But what I do hope is the world pays attention. Not to the loud statements and outlandish headlines coming out of this, but to how this represents our global society. This, if anything, should act as a reminder that our world is changing faster than anyone, including the West, can keep up and more and more people will become frustrated, polarising societies. Trump isn’t the real problem here. The problem, as Donald puts it so well, is there are ‘winners and losers’, but the losers may be finally getting their time.

Feature image: ©Thomas Bresson (Creative Commons)