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Facebook And Steve Bannon Hacked The Media. And They Won't Stop. – Mother Jones

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Let’s talk about Steve Bannon—I’d like to say “one last time” but who are we kidding? Regardless of the election outcome, we know that America’s political and media ecosystem has been inexorably changed by a racist novel-loving, dual collar-wearing media entrepreneur from Norfolk, Virginia. And if you thought the Bannon story was over after he got booted from the White House, or after he got pushed out of Breitbart News, or after his arrest by Postal Service agents this summer—you were wrong. Like a bad penny, Bannon keeps coming back, and in the closing weeks of this high-stakes election, he has been hauling out all of his old tricks to accomplish one simple goal: Sow chaos and confusion about Joe Biden, by any means necessary.

It was Bannon who shopped dubious material, supposedly off a Hunter Biden laptop, to the New York Post and other news outlets. It was people in Bannon’s circles who have been desperately trying to “pizzagate” Biden with baseless rumors. It is Bannon and Rudy Giuliani who, as my colleagues David Corn and Dan Friedman have comprehensively reported, keep pushing ever thinner and more loathsome allegations to every right-wing outlet site around. And while mainstream media are not being hoodwinked as much as they were in the past, it doesn’t matter as much anymore because it’s easier—and more profitable—than ever to pump propaganda directly into America’s political bloodstream. 

What made Bannon so effective over the years is the reengineering of our news ecosystem by tech platforms, most notably Facebook. If Bannon helped make Trump, Facebook helped make Bannon. And even if Bannon were to end up behind bars, and Trump were to be booted out of the Oval, we’ll be living in the world they created for a long, long time.

The seeds for this were sown back in the 1990s, by the most powerful news site of the early years of online publishing, the Drudge Report. Matt Drudge realized that white conservative resentment could be an internet profit center: He repackaged other outlets’ stories under outrage-inducing headlines and sold the hell out of the ensuing web traffic. (Though this year, Trump has become too much even for Drudge.)

Learning at Drudge’s shoulder in those years was a young assistant named Andrew Breitbart, who went on to help Arianna Huffington launch what she intended as Drudge’s liberal counterpart, The Huffington Post. Then Breitbart moved on to start his own site. It was the mid-aughts; social media was blossoming, traditional publishers’ business model was crumbling, and the recession was fueling a toxic mix of economic and racial fears. Breitbart spent the early Obama years peddling birtherism and other conspiracy theories to an angry, white, and largely male audience to whom a Black president felt like an existential threat.

But Breitbart was still a marginal publisher, and Donald Trump a marginal celebrity. Then, however, two critical things happened. In 2012, Andrew Breitbart died and control of the site went to Bannon, who in turn brought in an infusion of capital from hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, (who would also soon invest in a little-known British outfit named Cambridge Analytica).

And, right around the same time, Facebook began tweaking its algorithm—the formula that determines which posts get shown in your personal feed—to include more content from publishers. It aimed, as Mark Zuckerberg would famously say, to be the “perfect personalized newspaper for every person in the world.”

No one back then understood what this meant. In fact, many in the media were excited—Facebook promoting news could only be good for struggling newsrooms. Maybe it was even good for democracy.

But we misunderstood what Zuckerberg meant when he said “news.” He wasn’t talking about journalism, or any verified account of facts. He was talking about content—any content, of any quality. And, given that Facebook was laser-focused on growth, and growth was fueled by sharing, and sharing was fueled by emotion, he was in particular talking about content that riled you up. Content that made you love, but also content that made you hate.

What many of us didn’t know—but Steve Bannon did—was that content that makes you hate is easy to produce, and very clickable and shareable. And so, Breitbart turned the volume up to 11. It launched a vertical literally called “Black Crime.” It gave bylines to extremists and white nationalists. It became, as Bannon would tell Mother Jones as Trump’s 2016 campaign roared ahead, “the platform for the alt-right.” 

And soon Breitbart was no longer marginal, nor were the toxic ideas it promoted. Facebook’s algorithm helped it suck millions of Americans into an alternate reality where white people were endangered, immigrants were invaders, a casino developer was the champion of the working class, and any news that did not align with this narrative was fake. (For a while, Breitbart had a section called “Fake News Freakouts” that was entirely about discrediting actual journalism.)

Yet even as he worked to delegitimize traditional media, Bannon also played them like a violin. In 2012, he established a nonprofit organization dedicated to investigating politicians, the Government Accountability Institute. Its president was Peter Schweizer, a conservative researcher who had previously used his platform at the Hoover Institution think tank to feed investigations of politicians to outlets like 60 Minutes and Politico. As Bannon later explained to the Atlantic’s Joshua Green:

“The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs… You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can.”

It’s chilling to see how well Bannon diagnosed the problem he himself had been part of creating: The Facebook-fueled traffic machine was great for the kind of fast-and-cheap outrage content that Breitbart cranked out, but it was nowhere near enough to pay for the more time-consuming accountability reporting that news organizations had traditionally done. In the great shrinking of American journalism, investigative teams were often the first to go.

Schweizer used his perch at GAI to research a book about the Clinton Foundation and the largely fake Uranium One scandal. Then he and Bannon shopped embargoed copies to the New York Times and the Washington Post, both of which—entranced by the sexy exclusives—struck deals with GAI and ran major stories based on information in the book. These stories did a lot to establish the Clinton corruption narrative that dominated 2016.

Bannon had hacked the entire media ecosystem. Not only could he pump demagoguery and lies into his America’s bloodstream thanks to Facebook, he could also get it legitimized by mainstream news organizations. Eager to prove their credentials as nonpartisan arbiters, they would launder right-wing propaganda—and, despite some soul-searching, that has kept happening throughout the Trump years. As Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan trenchantly noted during January’s impeachment hearings: “In an unceasing effort to be seen as neutral, journalists time after time fell into the trap of presenting facts and lies as roughly equivalent and then blaming political tribalism for not seeming to know the difference.”

And this year, Bannon tried to pull the same gambit again. As Green, the most thorough journalistic chronicler of his media career, has reported, Bannon and Schweizer cranked up the old “but her emails” machine back in 2018:

“Looking ahead to 2020, it wasn’t hard to foresee that a moderate, two-term vice president like Joe Biden, popular across the party, was likely to run for president and be a good bet to win. Nor was it difficult for GAI to turn up examples of ethically questionable behavior by Biden’s family members.”

In 2018, Schweizer published Secret Empires, which laid out Hunter Biden’s business dealings and immediately went into heavy rotation in conservative media—especially Fox News. Before long, the president was tweeting about it, even citing Schweizer as his source, and dispatching Giuliani to go dig for dirt in Ukraine. That quest led directly to that fateful phone call with the Ukrainian prime minister, the impeachment hearings, and, most recently, the right-wing media storm over Hunter Biden’s laptop. 

In 2020, Bannon, Schweizer, and Giuliani’s work did not break through into mainstream media as the October Surprise they imagined—or led the president to imagine. But it didn’t matter as much as it once might have. By now, Trump’s campaign strategy was entirely predicated on turning out his base, and the base was getting marinated in disinformation 24/7. 

It was also being squeezed for all it was worth. For there’s another piece to the Bannon/Facebook/Trump nexus: Just as with Drudge back in the day, it’s not just about the politics. It’s about profit. Each of those outrage clicks produces revenue for Breitbart and the myriad other right-wing sites, Facebook accounts, and video mills that have sprung up to emulate it. And as audiences get sucked deeper into the fear-and-rage vortex, they also become the perfect mark for old-fashioned grift. 

 In August, Bannon was arrested in a fraud case (he has pleaded not guilty) involving a crowdfunding effort to build a border wall that pulled in some $25 million in donations. Brian Kolfage, the man at the center of the scheme, allegedly used donations to buy a luxe 40-footer named Warfighter. (Bannon himself was arrested while hanging out on the 152-foot Lady May, owned by a fugitive Chinese businessman.)

The 24-page indictment against Bannon and his alleged co-conspirators lays out just how these wise guys may have thought of their rank-and-file supporters: “Some donors wrote directly to Brian Kolfage,” the indictment notes, “saying that they did not have a lot of money and were skeptical about online fundraising campaigns, but they were giving what they could because they trusted Kolfage would keep his word about how their money would be spent.” Kolfage assured them that he was not taking a penny in compensation, it alleges, even as he and Bannon redirected more than $1 million to accounts they controlled.

GoFundMe eventually took down the We Build The Wall page. But guess who did not? Facebook. And can you guess what that page is doing now? It’s become, in effect, one of the right-wing “news” sites that were so effective in spreading disinformation in the 2016 campaign. (Kolfage himself, prior to We Build the Wall, operated another propaganda page called Right Wing News that was eventually taken down by Facebook. Not for peddling disinformation, though. Just for using fake accounts to gin up traffic.)

You might conclude from this twisted tale that we’re full circle back to 2016—and you wouldn’t be wrong, except for one thing: It’s actually worse. In 2016, Facebook could still claim that the architects of disinformation were manipulating its platform. But now we have evidence that Facebook was actually helping push this propaganda. As Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery and I reported last week, Mark Zuckerberg himself signed off on algorithm changes designed to favor conservative publishers—including, specifically, Breitbart—and throttle serious journalism including, specifically, Mother Jones.

In fact, Facebook has been looking out for Breitbart et al all the way back to 2016 (when Bannon was also the Trump campaign’s CEO), with the company’s lobbyists warning, according to our sources, that “we can’t do a ranking change that would hurt Breitbart, even if that change would make the News Feed better.” As late as last year, when Facebook rolled out its News Tab—designed, as Zuckerberg put it at the time,  to be “a place in the Facebook app dedicated solely to high-quality news”—it pointedly included Breitbart

So it’s not just that conservatives are good at gaming Facebook, Facebook is gaming itself in favor of conservatives—and it’s working. Every day, right-wing sources like Breitbart, The Daily Wire, and Trump himself top the platform’s engagement charts. (The top four highest-engagement posts from the past month are from Trump’s Facebook page; the #3 best-performing post, ironically, was his claim that Facebook and Twitter are censoring conservatives.) When a Republican congressional front-runner shared a video claiming that Jews are using Muslim immigrants to destroy Europe (a theory that Bannon has also embraced), Facebook did nothing except add a pearl-clutching qualifier that the content may be “sensitive to some people.” (The post has now, months later, been removed.) When vigilantes gathered to organize armed patrols in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Facebook did nothing until a teen militant killed two people. And on, and on.

Yes, in recent weeks Facebook has been rolling out a few changes—taking down QAnon groups, banning political advertising immediately after the election, even slowing distribution of the Hunter Biden email story (albeit so clumsily, it ended up boosting claims of censorship). But how are we to believe there’s any kind of principle behind this 11th-hour epiphany? (“It’s interesting to run the simulation of what would happen if Trump were up 10 points right now,” a former Facebook employee told us.)

Facebook made Bannon and Breitbart, and it’s clear that it will enable the next Bannon, the next Breitbart, and the next Trump. It will continue to allow users to be drenched with lies that separate them from their loved ones, their savings, and their own political best interests. It will permit the disinformation machines to keep going, and going.

Unless we break those machines—by building a better model for news. One where stories inspire action, not outrage and hate; where investigations enlighten instead of obfuscating; where opinion pieces advance ideas instead of cementing prejudice. And where publishers approach their audience not as “eyeballs” to be monetized, but as partners.

That’s what we’ve been working to build at Mother Jones ever since we were founded as a reader supported nonprofit, and these past four years you have stepped up in unprecedented ways to help us do it. As we wait out these last few uncertain, anxious days before the election, that fills me resolve. Because no matter what happens on November 3, we know Bannon, Breitbart, and the rest of the propagandists will not be slowing down. Neither will you. 

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Britney Spears calls recent documentaries about her ‘hypocritical’

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Pop singer Britney Spears spoke out on Tuesday about recent documentaries about her life and career, calling them “hypocritical” because they rehash her personal problems while criticizing the media for reporting them the first time.

Walt Disney Co’s FX network and The New York Times released “Framing Britney Spears” in February. The documentary examined the singer’s meteoric rise to fame as a teenager, the ensuing media scrutiny and her widely publicized breakdown.And this month, the BBC released “The Battle for Britney: Fans, Cash and a Conservatorship” in Britain. It will debut in the United States and Canada starting May 11 via the BBC Select streaming service.

In an Instagram post, Spears did not name either documentary but said “so many documentaries about me this year with other people’s takes on my life.”

“These documentaries are so hypocritical … they criticize the media and then do the same thing,” she added.

In March, Spears said she cried for two weeks after watching part of “Framing Britney Spears”.

The BBC said in a statement on Tuesday that its documentary “explores the complexities surrounding conservatorship with care and sensitivity.”

“It does not take sides and features a wide range of contributors,” the statement added.

A New York Times spokesperson declined to comment.

Spears, who shot to fame in 1998 with the hit “Baby One More Time,” is in a court battle seeking to replace her father as her conservator. He was appointed to the role in 2008 after she was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment.

Her fans have shown their support on social media under the hashtags #We’reSorryBritney and #FreeBritney. Spears is scheduled to speak to a Los Angeles court in June.

In her Instagram post, which included a video of herself dancing, Spears said that “although I’ve had some pretty tough times in my life … I’ve had waaaayyyy more amazing times in my life and unfortunately my friends … I think the world is more interested in the negative.”

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by David Gregorio)

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Grammy organizers change rules after allegations of corruption

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The organizers of music’s Grammy Awards on Friday announced an end to the so-called “secret” committees that have led to allegations that the highest honors in the industry are open to rigging.

The Recording Academy said that nominations for the next Grammy Awards in January 2022 will be selected by all of its more than 11,000 voting members, instead of by committees of 15-30 industry experts whose names were not revealed.

The Academy was slammed last year when Canadian artist The Weeknd got zero Grammy nominations, even though his critically acclaimed album “After Hours” was one of the biggest sellers of 2020.

The Weeknd, in a Twitter post last November, said “The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency.”

The Recording Academy said in a statement on Friday that the changes were significant and were made “to ensure that the Grammy Awards rules and guidelines are transparent and equitable.”

Allegations that the Grammy nominations process is tainted were made in a legal complaint filed in early 2019 by the former chief executive of the Recording Academy, Deborah Dugan.

At the time, the Academy dismissed as “categorically false, misleading and wrong” Dugan’s claims that its members pushed artists they have relationships with. Dugan was later fired.

American pop star Halsey, also shut out of the 2021 Grammys, last year called the nominations process “elusive” and said she was “hoping for more transparency or reform.”

Former One Direction singer Zayn Malik called in March for an end to “secret committees.”

“I’m keeping the pressure on & fighting for transparency & inclusion. We need to make sure we are honoring and celebrating ‘creative excellence’ of ALL,” Malik tweeted hours ahead of the 2021 Grammy Awards ceremony.

The Recording Academy on Friday also said it was adding two new Grammy categories – for best global music performance, and best Latin urban music album – bringing to 86 the total number of Grammy Awards each year.

 

(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by David Gregorio)

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Movie theaters face uncertain future

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By Lisa Richwine

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Maryo Mogannam snuck into the Empire theater in San Francisco with his older cousins to watch “Animal House” when he was 14. He watched most of the James Bond movies at the historic art house and took his wife there on some of their first dates.

The cinema, which had been showing movies since the silent film era, served notice in February that it was permanently closing because of the impact of COVID-19. The marquee is now blank, and cardboard and paper cover the box office window.

“It’s kind of like losing a friend,” said Mogannam, now 57, who owns a retail shipping outlet near the theater, which had been renamed the CineArts at the Empire.

As vaccinated Americans emerge from their homes, they also may find their neighborhood theater is not there to greet them.

An eight-cinema chain in New England said it will not reopen. The same fate hit a Houston art house beloved by director Richard Linklater and, in a shock to Hollywood, more than 300 screens run by Los Angeles-based Pacific Theatres. That includes the Cinerama Dome, a landmark that hosted several red-carpet movie premieres.

Following a year of closures, theaters face deferred rent bills plus media companies’ focus on drawing customers to streaming services. Up to one-fourth of the roughly 40,000 screens in the United States could disappear in the next few years, Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter said.

The National Association of Theatre Owners rejects that estimate, spokesman Patrick Corcoran said, noting that similar dire warnings accompanying the advent of television and the switch to digital screens never came to pass.

Hollywood filmmakers want cinemas to thrive.

“It’s the only place where the art dominates,” said “Avatar” director James Cameron. “When you watch something on streaming, the other people in the room with you are welcome to interject, to pause to go to the bathroom, to text.”

At theaters, “we literally make a pact with ourselves to go and spend two to three hours in a focused enjoyment of the art.”

“For 300 people to laugh and cry at the same time, strangers, not just your family in your house, that’s a very powerful thing,” said Chloe Zhao, Oscar-nominated director of best picture nominee “Nomadland.”

At the Academy Awards on Sunday, the movie industry will “make a case for why cinema matters,” producer Stacey Sher said. While acknowledging the hardship of the pandemic, “we also have to fight for cinema and our love of it and the way it has gotten us through things,” she said.

About 58% of theaters have reopened in the United States and Canada, most restricted to 50% capacity or less. The biggest operators – AMC, Cinemark and Cineworld – make up roughly half the overall market.

Industry leaders project optimism, forecasting a big rebound after restrictions ease and studios unleash new blockbusters.

Coming attractions include a new Bond adventure, the ninth “Fast & Furious” film, a “Top Gun” sequel and several Marvel superhero movies.

“Avatar 2,” Cameron’s follow-up to the highest-grossing film of all time, is set to debut in December 2022. Some box office analysts predict 2022 ticket sales will hit a record.

Supporters point to late March release “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which brought in roughly $48.5 million at U.S. and Canadian box offices over its first five days, even though audiences could stream it on HBO Max.

“That was a big win for the entire industry,” said Rich Daughtridge, president and chief executive of Warehouse Cinemas in Frederick, Maryland.

But near- and long-term challenges loom, particularly for smaller cinemas.

Theaters are negotiating with landlords over back rent. A federal aid program was delayed due to technical problems.

Plus, media companies are bringing movies to homes sooner. Executives say streaming is their priority, pouring billions into programming made to watch in living rooms as they compete with Netflix Inc.

Most at risk are theaters with one or two screens, Wedbush Securities’ Pachter said. He said his best guess is between 5,000 and 10,000 screens could go permanently dark in coming years.

“I think we’ll see a gradual decline in the number of screens,” Pachter said, “just like we’ve seen a gradual decline in the number of mom-and-pop grocery stores and bookstores.”

 

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Additional reporting by Rollo Ross in Los Angeles, Alicia Powell in New York and Nathan Frandino in San Francisco; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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