Years before most of us thought Donald Trump would have a shot at the presidency, the Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez put a name on a problem he saw in American conservative intellectual culture. Sanchez called it “epistemic closure,” and he framed the problem this way:
“One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile.”
Sanchez’s comments didn’t trigger any kind of real schism in conservative or libertarian circles. Sure, there was some heated debate among conservatives, and a few conservative commentators, like David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, and the National Review’s Jim Manzi, acknowledged that there might be some merit to Sanchez’s critique. But for most people, this argument among conservatives about epistemic closure hardly counted as serious news.
But the publication last fall of Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts—more than eight years after the original “epistemic closure” debate erupted—ought to make the issue hot again. This long, complex, yet readable study of the American media ecosystem in the run-up to the 2016 election (as well as the year afterwards) demonstrates that the epistemic-closure problem has generated what the authors call an “epistemic crisis” for Americans in general. The book also shows that our efforts to understand current political division and disruptions simplistically—either in terms of negligent and arrogant platforms like Facebook, or in terms of Bond-villain malefactors like Cambridge Analytica or Russia’s Internet Research Agency—are missing the forest for the trees. It’s not that the social media platforms are wholly innocent, and it’s not that the would-be warpers of voter behavior did nothing wrong (or had no effect). But the seeds of the unexpected outcomes in the 2016 U.S. elections, Network Propaganda argues, were planted decades earlier, with the rise of a right-wing media ecosystem that valued loyalty and confirmation of conservative (or “conservative”) values and narratives over truth.
Now, if you’re a conservative, you may be reading this broad characterization of Network Propaganda as an attack on conservatism itself. Here are four reasons you shouldn’t fall into that trap! First, nothing in this book challenges what might be called core conservative values (at least as they have been understood for most of the last 100 years or so). Those values typically have included favoring limited government over expansive government, preferring economic growth and rights to property over promoting equity and equality for their own sake, supporting business flexibility over labor and governmental demands, committing to certain approaches to tax policy, and so forth. Nothing in Network Propaganda is a criticism of substantive conservative values like these, or even of what may increasingly be taken as “conservative” stances in the Trump era (nationalism or protectionism or opposition to immigration, say). The book doesn’t take a position on traditional liberal or progressive political stances either.
Second, nothing in the book discounts the indisputable fact that individuals and media entities on the left, and even in the center, have their own sins and excesses to account for. In fact, the more damning media criticisms in the book are aimed squarely at the more traditional journalistic institutions that made themselves more vulnerable to disinformation and distorted narratives in the name of “objectivity.” Where right-wing media set out to reinforce conservative identity and narratives—doing, in fact, what they more or less always promised they were going to do—the institutional press of the left and the center frequently let their superficial commitment to objectivity result in the amplification of disinformation and distortions.
Third, there are philosophical currents on the left as well as the right that call the whole notion of objective facts and truth into question—that consider all questions of fact to represent political judgments rather than anything that might be called “factual” or “truthful.” As the authors put it, reform of our media ecosystems “will have to overcome not only right-wing propaganda, but also decades of left-wing criticism of objectivity and truth-seeking institutions.” Dedication to truth-seeking is, or ought to be, a transpartisan value.
Which leads us to the fourth reason conservatives should pay attention to Network Propaganda, which is the biggest one. The progress of knowledge, and of problem-solving in the real world, requires us, regardless of political preferences and philosophical approaches, to come together in recognizing the value of facts. Consider: if progressives had cocooned themselves in a media ecosystem that had cut itself from the facts—that valued tribal loyalty and shared identity over mere factual accuracy—conservatives and centrists would be justified in pointing out not merely that the left’s media were unmoored but also that its insistence on doctrinal purity in the face of factual disproof was positively destructive.
But the massive dataset and analyses offered by Benkler, Faris, and Roberts in Network Propaganda demonstrate persuasively that the converse distortion has happened. Specifically, the authors took about four million online stories regarding the 2016 election or national politics generally and analyzed them through Media Cloud, a joint technological project developed by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center and MIT’s Center for Civil Media over the course of the last decade. Media Cloud enabled the authors to study not only where the stories originate but also how they were linked and propagated, and how the various entities in our larger media ecosystem link to one another. The Media Cloud analytical system made it possible to study news sites, including the website versions of newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, along with the more politically focused websites on the left and right, like Daily Kos and Breitbart. The system also enabled the authors to study how the stories were retweeted and shared on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, as well as how, in particular instances, television coverage supplemented or amplified online stories.
You might expect that any study of such a large dataset would show symmetrical patterns of polarization during the pre-election to post-election period the authors studied (basically, 2015 through 2017). It was, after all, an election period, which is typically a time of increased partisanship. You might also expect, given the increasing presence of social-media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in American public life, that the new platforms themselves, just by their very existence and popularity, shaped public opinion in new ways. And you might expect, given the now-indisputable fact that Russian “active measures” were trying to influence the American electorate in certain ways, to see clear proof either that the Russians succeeded in their disinformation/propaganda efforts (or that they failed).
Yet Network Propaganda, instantly a necessary text for those of us who study media ecologies, shows that the data point to different conclusions. The authors’ Media Cloud analyses (frequently represented visually in colorful graphs as well as verbally in tables and in the text of the book itself) point to different conclusions altogether. As Benkler characterizes the team’s findings in the Boston Review:
“The data was not what we expected. There were periods during the research when we were just working on identifying—as opposed to assessing—the impact of Russians, and during those times, I thought it might really have been the Russians. But as we analyzed these millions of stories, looking both at producers and consumers, a pattern repeated again and again that had more to do with the traditional media than the Internet.”
That traditional media institutions are seriously culpable for the spread of disinformation is counterintuitive. The authors begin Network Propaganda by observing what most of us also observed—the rise of what briefly was called “fake news” before that term was transmuted by President Trump into shorthand for his critics. But Benkler at al. also note that that the latter half of the 20th century, mainstream journalistic institutions, informed by a wave of professionalization that dates back approximately to the founding of the Columbia University journalism school, historically had been able to overcome most of the fact-free calumnies and conspiracy theories through their commitment to objectivity and fact-checking. Yet mainstream journalism failed the culture in 2016, and it’s important for the journals and the journalists to come to terms with why. But doing so means investigating how stories from the fringes interacted with the mainstream.
The fringe stories had weird staying power; in the period centering on the 2016 election, a lot of the stories that were just plain crazy—from the absurd narrative that was “Pizzagate” to claims that Jeb Bush had “close Nazi ties” (Alex Jones played a role in both of these narratives)–persistently resurfaced in the way citizens talked about the election. To the Network Propagandaauthors, it became clear that in recent years something new has emerged—namely, a variety of disinformation that seems, weedlike, to survive the most assiduous fact-checkers and persist in resurfacing in the public mind.
How did this emergence happen, and should we blame the internet? Certainly this phenomenon didn’t manifest in any way predicted by either the more optimistic pundits at the internet’s beginnings or the backlash pessimists who followed. The optimists had believed that increased democratic access to mass media might give rise to a wave of citizen journalists who supplemented and ultimately complemented institutional journalism, leading both to more accuracy in reporting and more citizen engagement. The pessimists predicted “information cocoons” (Cass Sunstein’s term) and “filter bubbles” (Eli Pariser’s term) punctuated to some extent by quarrelsomeness because online media can act as disinhibition to bad behavior.
Yes, to some extent, the optimists and the pessimists both found confirmation of their predictions, but what they didn’t expect, and what few if any seem to have predicted, was the marked asymmetry of how the predictions played in the 2015-2017 period with regard to the 2016 election processes and their outcome. As the authors put it, “[t]he consistent pattern that emerges from our data is that, both during the highly divisive election campaign and even more so during the first year of the Trump presidency, there is no left-right division, but rather a division between the right and the rest of the media ecosystem. The right wing of the media ecosystem behaves precisely as the echo-chamber models predict—exhibiting high insularity, susceptibility to information cascades, rumor and conspiracy theory, and drift toward more extreme versions of itself. The rest of the media ecosystem, however, operates as an interconnected network anchored by organizations, both for profit and nonprofit, that adhere to professional journalistic norms.”
As a result, this period saw the appearance of disinformation narratives that targeted Trump and his primary opponents as well as Hillary Clinton, but the narratives that got more play, not just in right-wing outlets but ultimately in the traditional journalistic outlets at well, were the ones that centered on Clinton. This happened even when there were fewer available facts supporting the anti-Clinton narratives and (occasionally) more facts supporting the anti-Trump narratives. The explanation for the anti-Clinton narratives’ longevity in the news cycle, the data show, is the focus of the right-wing media ecology on the two focal media nodes of Fox News and Breitbart. At times during this period, Breitbart took the lead as an influencer from Fox News, which eventually responded by repositioning itself after Trump’s nomination as a solid Trump booster.
In contrast, left-wing media had no single outlet that defined orthodoxy for progressives. Instead, left-of-center outlets worked within the larger sphere of traditional media, and, because they were competing for the rest of the audience that had not committed itself to the Fox/Breitbart ecosystem, were constrained to adhere, mostly, to facts that were confirmable by traditional media institutions associated with the center-left (the New York Times and the Washington Post, say) as well as with the center-right (e.g., the Wall Street Journal). Basically, even if you were an agenda-driven left-oriented publication or online outlet, your dependence on reaching the mainstream for your audience meant that, you couldn’t get away with just making stuff up, or with laundering far-left conspiracy theories from more marginal sources.
Network Propaganda‘s data regarding the right-wing media ecosystem—that it’s insular, prefers confirmation of identity and loyalty rather than self-correction, demonizes perceived opponents, and resists disconfirmation of its favored narratives—map well to social-science political-communication theorists Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph Capella’s 2008 book, Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh And The Rise Of Conservative Media. In that book, Jamieson and Capella outlined how, as they put it, “these conservative media create a self-protective enclave hospitable to conservative beliefs.” As a consequence, they write:
“[t]his safe haven reinforces conservative values and dispositions, holds Republican candidates and leaders accountable to conservative ideals, tightens their audience’s ties to the Republican Party, and distances listeners, readers, and viewers from ‘liberals,” in general, and Democrats, in particular. It also enwraps them in a world in which facts supportive of Democratic claims are contested and those consistent with conservative ones championed.”
The data analyzed by Benkler et al. in Network Propaganda support Jamieson’s and Capella’s conclusions from more than a decade ago. Moreover, Benkler et al. argue that the key factors in the promotion of disinformation were not “clickbait fabricators” (who generate eye-grabbing headlines to generate revenue), or Russian “active measures,” or the corrosive effects of the (relatively) new social-media platforms Facebook and Twitter. The authors are aware that in making this argument they’re swimming against the tide:
“Fake news entrepreneurs, Russians, the Facebook algorithm, and online echo chambers provide normatively unproblematic, nonpartisan explanations to the current epistemic crisis. For all of these actors, the strong emphasis on technology suggests a novel challenge that our normal systems do not know how to handle but that can be addressed in a nonpartisan manner. Moreover, focusing on ‘fake news’ from foreign sources and on Russian efforts to intervene places the blame onto foreigners with no legitimate stake in our democracy. Both liberal political theory and professional journalism consistently seek neutral justifications for democratic institutions, so visibly nonpartisan explanations such as these have enormous attraction.”
Nevertheless, Network Propaganda argues, the nonpartisan explanations are inconsistent with what the data show, which the authors characterize as “a radicalization of roughly a third of the American media system.” (It isn’t “polarization,” since the data don’t show any symmetry between left and right “poles.”) The authors argue that “[n]o fact emerges more clearly from our analysis of how four million political stories were linked, tweeted, and shared over a three-year period than that there is no symmetry in the architecture and dynamics of communications within the right-wing media ecosystem and outside of it.” In addition, they write, “we have observed repeated public humiliation and vicious disinformation campaigns mounted by the leading sites in this sphere against individuals who were the core pillars of Republican identity a mere decade earlier.” Those campaigns against Republican stalwarts came from the radicalized right-wing media sources, not from the left.
The authors acknowledge that they “do not expect our findings to persuade anyone who is already committed to the right-wing media ecosystem. [The data] could be interpreted differently. They could be viewed as a media system overwhelmed by liberal bias and opposed only by a tightly-clustered set of right-wing sites courageously telling the truth in the teeth of what Sean Hannity calls the ‘corrupt, lying media,’ rather than our interpretation of a radicalized right set apart form a media system anchored in century-old norms of professional journalism.” But that interpretation of the data flies in the face of Network Propaganda’s extensive demonstration that the traditional mainstream media—in what the authors call “the performance of objectivity”—actually had the effect of amplifying right-wing narratives rather than successfully challenging the false or distorted narratives. (The authors explore this paradox in Chapter 6.)
Democrats and progressives won’t have any trouble accepting the idea that radicalized right-wing media are the primary cause of what the authors call today’s “epistemic crisis.” But Benkler and his co-authors want Republicans to recognize what they lost in 2016:
“The critical thing to understand as you read this book is that the epochal change reflected by the 2016 election and the first year of the Trump presidency was not that Republicans beat Democrats [but instead] that in 2016 the party of Ronald Reagan and the two presidents Bush was defeated by the party of Donald Trump, Breitbart, and billionaire Robert Mercer. As our data show, in 2017 Fox News joined the victors in launching sustained attacks on core pillars of the Party of Reagan—free trade and a relatively open immigration policy, and, most directly, the national security establishment and law enforcement when these threatened President Trump himself.”
It’s possible that many or even most Republicans don’t yet want to hear this message—the recent shuttering of The Weekly Standard underscores one of the consequences of radicalization of right-wing media, which is that center-right outlets, more integrated with the mainstream media in terms of journalistic professionalism and factuality, have lost influence in the right-wing media sphere. (It remains to be seen whether The Bulwark helps fill the gap.)
But the larger message from Network Propaganda’s analyses is that we’re fooling ourselves if we blame our current culture’s vulnerability to disinformation on the internet in general or on social media (or search engines, or smartphones) … or even on Russian propaganda campaigns. Blaming the Russians is trendy these days, and even Kathleen Jameson, whose 2008 book on right-wing media, Echo Chamber, informs the authors’ work in Network Propaganda, has adopted the thesis that the Russians probably made the difference for Trump in 2016. Her recent book Cyberwar—published a month after Network Propaganda was published—spells out a theory of Russian influence in the 2016 election that also, predictably, raises concerns about social media, as well as focusing on the role of the Wikileaks releases of hacked DNC emails and how the mainstream media responded to those releases.
Popular accounts of Jamieson’s book have interpreted Cyberwar as proof that the Russians are the central culprits in any American 2016 electoral dysfunction, even though Jamieson carefully qualifies her reasoning and conclusions in all the ways you would want a responsible social scientist to do. (She doesn’t claim to have proved her thesis conclusively.) Taken together with the trend of seeing social media as inherently socially corrosive, the Russians-did-it narrative suggests that if Twitter and Facebook (and Facebook-integrated platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp) clean up their acts and find ways to purge their products of foreign actors as well as homegrown misleading advertising and “fake news,” the political divisiveness we’ve seen in recent years will subside. But Network Propaganda provides strong reason to believe that reforming or regulating or censoring the internet companies won’t solve the problems they’re being blamed for. True, the book expressly endorses public-policy responses to the disinformation campaigns of malicious foreign actors as well as reforms of how the platforms handle political advertising. But, the authors insist, the problem isn’t primarily the Russians, or technology—it’s in our political and media cultures.
Possibly Jamieson is right to think that the Russians’ “active measures” were efforts that, amplifying pre-existing political divisions through social media, were the final straw that ultimately changed the outcome of the 2016 election. Nevertheless, at its best Jamieson’s book has taken a snapshot of how vulnerable our political culture was in 2016. Plus, her theory of Russian influence requires some suspension of disbelief, notably in her theory about how then-FBI-director James Comey’s interventions—departures from DOJ/FBI norms—were caused somehow by the fact of the Russian campaign. Even if you accept her account, it’s an account of our vulnerability that doesn’t explain where the vulnerability came from.
In contrast, Network Propaganda has a fully developed theory of where that vulnerability came from, and traces it—in ways aligned with Jamieson’s previous scholarship—to sources that predate the modern internet and social media. In addition, in what may be a surprise given the book’s focus on what might be mistakenly taken as a problem unique to American political culture, Network Propaganda expressly places the American problems in the context of the larger currents around the world to blame internet platforms in particular for social ills:
“For those not focused purely on the American public sphere, our study suggests that we should focus on the structural, not the novel; on the long-term dynamic between institutions, culture, and technology, not only the disruptive technological moment; and on the interaction between the different media and technologies that make up a society’s media ecosystem, not on a single medium, like the internet, much less a single platform like Facebook or Twitter. The stark differences we observe between the insular right-wing media ecosystem and the majority of the American media environment, and the ways in which open web publications, social media, television, and radio all interacted to produce these differences, suggest that the narrower focus will lead to systematically erroneous predictions and diagnoses. It is critical not to confound what is easy to measure (Twitter) with what is significantly effective in shaping beliefs and politically actionable knowledge in society…. Different countries, with different histories, institutional structures, and cultural practices of collective sense-making need not fear the internet’s effects. There is no echo chamber or filter-bubble effect that will inexorably take a society with a well-functioning public sphere and turn it into a shambles simply because the internet comes to town.”
Benkler, Faris, and Roberts expressly acknowledge, however, that it’s appropriate for governments and companies to consider how they regulate political advertising and targeted messaging going forward—even if this online content can’t be shown to have played a significant corrosive role in past elections, there’s no guarantee that refined versions won’t be more effective in the future. But even more important, they insist, is the need to address larger institutional issues affecting our public sphere. The book’s Chapter 13 addresses a full range of possible reforms. These include “reconstructing center-right media” (to address what the authors think Julian Sanchez correctly characterized as an “epistemic closure” problem) as well as insisting that professional journalists recognize that they’re operating in a propaganda-rich media culture, which ethically requires them to do something more than “performance of objectivity.”
The recommendations also include promoting what they call a “public health approach to the media ecosystem,” which essentially means obligating the tech companies and platforms to disclose “under appropriate legal constraints [such as protecting individual privacy]” the kind of data we need to assess media patterns, dysfunctions, and outcomes. They write, correctly, that we “can no more trust Facebook to be the sole source of information about the effects of its platform on our media ecosystem than we could trust a pharmaceutical company to be the sole source of research on the outcome of its drugs, or an oil company to be the sole source of measurements of particles emissions or CO2 in the atmosphere.”
The fact is that the problems in our political and media culture can’t be delegated to Facebook or Twitter to solve on their own. Any comprehensive, holistic solutions to our epistemic crises require not only transparency and accountability but also fully engaged democracy with full access to the data. Yes, that means you and me. It’s time for our epistemic opening.