The news media in the Western world remain dominated by newspapers, magazines and broadcasters still known as the mainstream. The most vivid proof of their continued reign over public opinion is in the figure of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose repeated attacks on “failing” publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post as "enemies of the people" is a backhanded tribute to their continued power.
Still, the dominance of the old media is under threat from the new. Trump has more than 55 million followers on Twitter, which he uses as his personal channel to fire up Americans – a vastly sped-up version of FDR’s fireside chats during the Great Depression and World War Two.
And these new media channels now threaten to overcome that dominance. They bring voices from every part of the political and social spectrum in a fashion more intimate, direct and demotic than the mainstream – which is generally careful not to offend, to eschew profanity, to balance one view with another. Perhaps most importantly, the new platforms bring voices which claim to have been suppressed in the traditional media because they are too far-right, too incorrect, too inappropriate, but which flourish online.
A remarkable radio documentary – "Right Click" – aired on BBC Radio 4 this week, revealed a world of British activists whose already-large reach is growing, and who see themselves as the voices of the voiceless, the powers of the powerless. I say “revealed” because it was revealed to me, and no doubt to others in the mainstream media and their (often declining) audiences, while they are already part of the news and opinion ecology of many of the young. According to “Right Click,” they are part of “a huge new political movement” whose members consider traditional media to be the enemy and see themselves as warriors in a culture war. In the UK, where most journalists’ default position is contempt for Trump, the new voices are fans, supporters and defenders and defenders of the right, and see the U.S. president’s enemies as their own.
One of the movement’s leaders is Paul Joseph Watson, 36, from the depressed former steel capital of Sheffield. He took to YouTube in 2011 and his earnings from his more than 1.4 million subscribers and close to 327 million video views are estimated at around $10,000 a month. That’s likely a large underestimate of his total take: “Right Click” reports that Watson, who started broadcasting from his mother’s basement, now has a very big flat in London.
Watson launches himself against such targets as the Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling, showing pictures of her three “mansions” – in the Scottish Highlands, in Edinburgh and in Tasmania – and mocking her for calling for the UK to welcome more migrants, while hosting none of them in her homes. Watson defends the pro-Trump actor James Woods, who was temporarily shut out of Twitter in September for posting a satirical meme claiming that Democrats were advising them not to vote in next month’s midterm elections in order to increase the power of women's vote – a claim, Watson said, which was an obvious joke that only a "complete idiot" would take seriously.
The status of the joke is central to this strain of politics (and politics, serious politics, it is). Mark Meechan, who works under the name of Count Dankula, posted in 2016 a video of his girlfriend's pug dog sitting, with one paw held rigidly out from its body. The Count explained that he had taught the dog to give a stiff-armed Nazi salute in response to comments like "Sieg Heil" (Hail to victory) and “gas the Jews.”
For this Meechan was fined £800 ($1,045) for a contravention of the Communications Act in that he was "grossly offensive.” Losing his appeal in August, he raised nearly £200,000 from followers – and said he would rather go to prison than pay. He was not, he insisted, a racist. His action was a joke – first, on his girlfriend and, second, on everyone else.
Much of what I have seen and heard from these new world commentators I thought reasonable debate. Some share some of the ideas and aversions of more mainstream commentators, who insist they are "classical liberals." Much of what they say and broadcast is akin to mere anti-political correctness, and the highlighting of cases where liberals object to conservative speakers being given a platform.
But a Hitler-saluting pug? Doing his trick on the prompt to kill Jews? Shouldn't that be banned? Unlike the United States, the UK doesn't have the constitutionally-protected right to free speech that allows nearly all comments described as "hate." I would follow the Americans in this, in the belief that suppression even of a heinous statement gives it a wind at its back. But Count Dankula tests that position to a limit.
The matter is not confined to the cultural world, nor to a corner of politics. The BBC radio show reported that 92 percent of under-25s got their news and views from the internet, as did 62 percent of those aged 25-35. They, said the program’s presenter, Gavin Hayes, are the “iceberg coming.”
And the present? Last weekend, the Christian Social Union (CSU) lost its position as the hegemonic party of the southern German state of Bavaria. The CSU is part of the governing coalition led by Chancellor Angela Merkel – as are the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), who also did very badly in Bavaria.
Though the CSU remains the largest party, it lost support to the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland and the leftist Greens, neither strong forces in Bavaria till now. The fragmentation of politics and the rapid decline of the mainstream parties has been already visible at the national level in Germany – as it is in France, Italy, the UK and Sweden.
It's not fanciful to say that the denizens of social media have a large part to play in this. The political culture war, between a part of the left and the media which have become intolerant and censoring of sharp debate, and a part of the right determined to test the boundaries of speech and humour, spills over into political choice. It forms many, especially the young, into opposing armies. And if it becomes an even more powerful force in the news media, it will course through our politics like a hurricane, destroying old media and the politics that went with them – and creating a new political landscape which we can only now glimpse.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is a senior research fellow. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.