The New Gatekeepers

How can journalists stop providing oxygen to trolls and extremists?

May 24, 2018

Are journalists partly to blame for the rise of the alt-right and the outcome of the 2016 election? A new report from the New York–based research institute Data & Society looks at the ways in which journalists help to popularize extremist views, in some cases accidentally. The paper—written by Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University, and entitled “The Oxygen of Amplification”argues that alt-right and other groups were aided and abetted by the media, which helped promote their views and thereby exposed their ideas to new audiences. Writes Phillips:

The takeaway for establishment journalists is stark, and starkly distressing: just by showing up for work and doing their jobs as assigned, journalists covering the far-right fringe—which subsumed everything from professional conspiracy theorists to proTrump social media shit-posters to actual Nazis—played directly into these groups’ public relations interests. In the process, this coverage added not just oxygen, but rocket fuel to an already-smoldering fire.

Of the 50 journalists Phillips interviewed, many agreed their work covering the alt-right and other extremist groups provided them with more publicity, and may have helped create the movement itself. “Without journalists reporting on them, there’s no way they would have gotten the attention they did,” said HuffPost reporter and former Gizmodo writer Ashley Feinberg. “At this point we have built the world they told us existed.”

The mechanisms by which this happened are complex, as Phillips describes at some length in the report, and many of them are not easy to change because they are built into the very structure of journalism itself. But the author also suggests ways of mitigating the damage—steps that journalists can take to ensure that the coverage they are providing of such groups is not only justified, but reduces the amplification problem.

One thing they can do, Phillips suggests, is to not send reporters who are unfamiliar with online behavior like trolling to write about it, since it makes them unprepared for many of the tactics and strategies online natives are used to. But there are other tips and tests that can be used as well, she says, including:

  • Has the story in question expanded beyond the interests of a specific online community or subset of a community, to the point where it is being shared or discussed more widely? This is what Claire Wardle of First Draft News and others call “the tipping point.” If a story hasn’t reached this point, then writing about it will almost certainly push it past that and give it more oxygen and legitimacy.
  • Does the story have some larger positive social benefit, in the sense that it will add to an existing conversation about solutions to a problem, or open up a new conversation about an important topic? This is similar to the kind of test that journalists and media outlets use when reporting on other forms of social behavior such as suicide, violent crime, etc.
  • Will reporting on the story produce some kind of harm to those involved, including embarrassment, re-traumatization or professional damage, or could the audience for the story use the information in it to cause harm, whether it’s attacking sources or imitating crimes? That last point is similar to the test some media outlets use when reporting on computer hacking and other similar incidents.

One thing that’s problematic about these tests is they all involve subjective appraisals of the social landscape, and assumptions about potential outcomes, which means that they are open to debate. What qualifies as a tipping point? If an obscure blog or niche news site writes about it, or a couple do, does that mean it has hit the mainstream enough that it should be covered? Also, what qualifies as harm?

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On top of that, as Phillips points out elsewhere in the report, some media organizations simply don’t care about the potential damage a story could cause, so long as writing and publishing it attracts attention and/or brings in revenue.

“Many reporters also acknowledged that some journalists are themselves manipulators, cynically repeating lines they know are false and misleading because it will get them clicks,” the author writes. Max Read, editor of New York magazine’s technology blog Select All, tells Phillips that “there are so-called journalists more than happy to embrace the fucked-upness and make a buck off it.” And that is a problem that won’t be solved until the entire revenue model for news is changed.

ICYMI: Ashley Feinberg trolls for all the right reason


Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.