Yochai Benkler, Rob Faris and Hal Robert, three scholars affiliated with Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, have a new book, “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics,” presenting major new research about the political consequences of American media. I asked Benkler, who is the Berkman professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, and faculty co-director of the Berkman Klein Center, about what they found.
Your research finds that America has two very different media ecosystems — one brings together the political center and the left, and the other is largely confined to the right. What are the key differences between them?
On the right, audiences concentrate attention on purely right wing outlets. On the left and center audiences spread their attention broadly and focus on mainstream organizations. This asymmetric pattern holds for the linking practices of media producers. Both supply and demand on the right are insular and self-focused. On the left and center they are spread broadly and anchored by professional press.
These differences create a different dynamic for media, audiences, and politicians on the left and right.
We all like to hear news that confirms our beliefs and identity. On the left, outlets and politicians try to attract readers by telling such stories but are constrained because their readers are exposed to a range of outlets, many of which operate with strong fact-checking norms.
On the right, because audiences do not trust or pay attention to outlets outside their own ecosystem, there is no reality check to constrain competition. Outlets compete on political purity and stoking identity-confirming narratives. Outlets and politicians who resist the flow by focusing on facts are abandoned or vilified by audiences and competing outlets. This forces media and political elites to validate and legitimate the falsehoods, at least through silence, creating a propaganda feedback loop.