Why trade unions need to get serious about new media in 2017

The far right funded new media networks and took the highest office in the world. It's time for the left to learn from that.

Aaron Bastani
22 November 2016

Steve Bannon: the white nationalist who went from Breitbart editor to president's chief strategist. Image, Don Irvine.

The events of the last year mean that many of the core assumptions around politics – particularly who can win and how – are in need of thorough re-examination. That doesn’t just apply to goings-on in Britain and the United States – with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – but also the failed coup in Turkey against Erdogan and the ruling AKP, as well as the impeachment of Dilma Roussef in Brazil. Each of those events personifies, as I’ve said elsewhere, how 2016 represents the political overhead of an economic crisis which started in 2007. The new volatility of Sanders, Farage, Syriza, Trump, Corbyn and Podemos, are, in different ways, the electoral expression of ever more people being open to radical solutions.

And yet that economic crisis, which has seen a polarisation of politics across Europe – along with the rise of the far-right – has been accompanied by a technological shift as well. While Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, and Northern Rock was nationalised, it was also the year the first 3G iPhone was launched. Over a billion handsets have been sold in the meantime, and if the old economic order has carried on like a zombie since then, IT and new media have been the exceptions. 

What are the consequences of that latter shift, and how does it intersect with politics? The short answer, as many predicted, is that individuals have been empowered while organisational incumbents – in politics, media and business – have been undermined. Only a few years ago that claim, of new media giving resources to individuals and small groups which was previously unimaginable, appeared to exercise net positive effects. Now we know that networked individualism is as much the terrain of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Geert Wilders as it is activists at Gezi Park or Occupy Oakland. Furthermore, while declining costs of information have meant the cost of entry to media production have plummeted, that has meant a blossoming of ideas, news sites and personalities on the far right as much as the left. ‘Fake News’, for me at least, is nothing new. Just look at the BBC, the Sun and the New York Times ahead of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

‘Fake News’, for me at least, is nothing new. Just look at the BBC, the Sun and the New York Times ahead of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Miscommunicating the facts to millions, or flat out lying, has always happened. What has changed is anyone can now do it so long as they have an internet connection, snappy writing skills and an over-active imagination. It turns out that while social media can help us make more informed choices, discovering context and detail at the speed of light, it also compounds confirmation bias like never before, giving us more of the information that we want to see.

It’s important to highlight that new media’s role in Trump’s victory wasn’t just because of fictitious stories made up by nonsense websites however (my personal favourite being how Hillary Clinton purchased $137 million of weapons). While this was a variable, and it’s astonishing to think such stories were shared hundreds of thousands of times, we must also accept that new media actors on the right  – organisational ones – have taken the lead. Because many of them, like Drudge Report and Alex Jones, were beyond the parameters of Republican party respectability, I always thought they didn’t really matter for electoral politics. I was wrong. 

Take Breitbart. Sure, everyone is talking about it right now since its Executive Chairman, Steve Bannon, will be Trump’s strategist-in-chief once he enters the White House; but even without that news its success has been a big story in 2016. Four years ago Breitbart received 12 million views a month. This year, they received 300 million. By traffic the site has overtaken the New York Post in the US and is fast closing on the likes of the LA Times and the Guardian there. 

Yet Breitbart’s most impressive accomplishments came in the final few months of the race for the White House with social media. According to analytics company Newswhip, the site ranked number one in the world for most shared Facebook content in the 24 hours surrounding the third presidential debate – ahead of any major media company as well as both candidates. Newswhip have also calculated how Breitbart was the biggest global publisher of political content on social media for the months of May and June, beating the likes of Huffington Post, the Hill and the Guardian. Given 150 million Americans use Facebook every day, around twenty million more than voted in the Presidential election, and for an average of fifty minutes each, that’s a big deal.

The relationship between Trump’s success and the rise of Breitbart can’t be overstated, with the President-elect sharing the site’s content, through both his Facebook and Twitter channels, an amazing 186 times at time of writing. His approach (or more realistically Steve Bannon’s as his campaign CEO) has been to amplify favourable, non-mainstream media, giving them bigger audience share while legitimising his arguments through approving journalism. For both sides it’s been a win-win. What is more, his attitude to the mainstream media didn’t lose him anywhere as many votes as one would have expected. That’s because they don’t matter as much as we think they do, especially when the alternative candidate isn’t particularly compelling.

Britain isn’t the United States. Because it has a far more right-wing print media, as well as a public service broadcaster – the BBC – which is allergic to meaningful debate for fear of seeming politically biased (not unreasonable, but also a result of repeated government intervention) there have been fewer incentives for the right to invest in new media like in the US. Here, instead, they rely on the force of the likes of the Daily Mail and Sun which, even with declining circulations, are still very powerful print publications, setting the broadcast news agenda to a significant degree. Where there have been newer players in the UK, like with, they tend to have more of an agenda-setting power, interfacing with favourable papers to take stories, like the Labour anti-semitism ‘scandal’, to scale very quickly. Unlike the increasingly resource poor mainstream media, they have time to work on patient journalism, isolating individuals and groups they find disagreeable; because of their online-only presence, they are able to respond to the news cycle with incredible speed and facility, sometimes shaping news in real time. 

Nevertheless, even that picture may be changing. Breitbart does already operate in the UK with plans to expand both here and elsewhere. As print papers experience further decline and many eventually disappear, it is perfectly foreseeable that similar sites will take root in the UK. In the future virtually no media company will make money, but if you are a Tory party donor or Arron Banks, that doesn’t really matter. A couple of million pounds, as well as some leadership and gravitas, and you are away. Personally, if I was an ultra-nationalist millionaire, I’d create a powerful stable of YouTubers under a new brand, including people like Milo, to further influence mainstream broadcast, set print agendas and hit ever larger online audiences with outrageous content. I’d be surprised if this kind of project doesn’t happen in the next several years. It would be comparatively cheap and very effective.

In fact something politically worse than the status quo is highly likely by the next decade. Sure, a slew of new mass sites – either apolitical or right wing – would be counter-balanced by the BBC, but between it and what remained of the print papers, (and the Sun and the Daily Mail (with the exception of the FT) will be the last ones standing) that wouldn’t mean much. The BBC, with its commitment to impartiality and triangulating between any two points of view, no matter how ridiculous or bizarre, follows agendas, it doesn’t set them. In fairness, John Reith never intended it to.

So what do people who care about the welfare state, the NHS and tax avoidance do to get their voices heard, reach one another and find a national audience rather than speak among themselves? After all, polling data consistently shows majority support for things like rail nationalisation and defending the NHS, as well as increasingly critical attitudes around things like tax avoidance. What the last year shows is that in isolation none of those polls mean anything if there isn’t a conscious effort, backed up with a strategy and resources, to create a media environment to inform, inspire and grow progressive opinion.

Unions have been talking about funding new media for years. Indeed I can’t count the number of times people, including those active in the labour movement, have said it should be a priority. The reality is, however, that it isn’t. The country’s biggest unions, and I focus on them because they are the most important civil society organisations aiming for a more progressive Britain, couldn’t be further away from getting it. I don’t write this to attack anyone, or to be right, but because, given the last twelve months, its highly possible we’ll look back at the right wing print media in 2016 with relative fondness in a decade time. It could get much worse. In fact, it’s likely to.

To be clear, I understand the argument in response: that unions should only focus on issues and allocate resources to extend the interests of their members. And I agree. But the objective must be, surely, to also create a broader body of opinion to convert those interests into legislative change. You don’t get that without investing in new media, and, as I’ve already said, the appalling status quo is liable to only get worse. 

Trade unions, as with all progressive civil society organisations, must, as a matter of urgency, now make plans not only to exert greater media influence through media both old and new, but also examine how to fund external media organisations who advocate their values and champion their objectives. Some will say that isn’t what unions do, but if they don’t the cultural environment will only deteriorate further, in turn making any gains for their members ever more unlikely.

Britain, like much of the world, stands at a political crossroads. This intersects massively with a media environment changing almost by the month. If the unions don’t have a plan to address that, and turn a crisis into an opportunity, they’ll face ever more challenging conditions. 

2016 illustrates how quickly things can change; how the old way of doing things seems to only offer diminishing returns and is a route to failure rather than safety. In the new politics you are on the front foot or you are nowhere. 2017 must be the year of building left new media, powering a politics of hope, abundance and prosperity. It is critical that trade unions are at the forefront of that, bending history to the needs of the many, not the few. 

And if they don’t do that? Well, that just makes it more likely that the Breitbarts of the world – racist, sexist and without answers to our failing economic model – will be in the driving seat. That cannot be allowed to happen. 


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