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How right-wing media became obsessed with pop culture



Is the blockbuster success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie a victory for the “anti-woke”?

Well, according to right-wing media pundits like Charlie Kirk, Steven Crowder, and Alex Jones, it sure is, mostly because of how the film’s producers ignored public calls to cast Italian American voice actors in the cartoon roles of Mario and Luigi. Yet if you check the Washington Examiner, you can read all about “The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s Invisible Wokeness,” which has something to do with the video game’s Princess Peach being elevated from a damsel-in-distress to a goomba-kicking action heroine. For further analysis, why not consult the Daily Wire, the news site that has become something of an industry leader for conservative pop culture coverage? Here, you can find a detailed breakdown of the issue under the headline “Woke, Or Anti-Woke? The Super Mario Bros. Movie Sparks Debate Among Conservatives About Setting the Bar Too Low.”

If all of this seems like a lot, just wait for later this month when Disney releases its long-awaited live-action remake of The Little Mermaid starring Black actress Halle Bailey in the titular role. Matt Walsh, a Daily Wire contributor, already kicked off the discourse way back in September when the first teaser trailer dropped, courting accusations of racism by remarking on his podcast that “from a scientific perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have someone with darker skin who lives deep in the ocean.”

Yes, from Black mermaids and hobbits to “girlboss” princesses and Jedi knights — not to mention drag queens and trans TikTok stars — today’s right-wing media commentators have no shortage of opinions when it comes to pop culture. For that, we have the “Breitbart Doctrine” to thank, a.k.a. the theory that changed everything, which has convinced a generation of right-wing media professionals that, as the late right-wing commentator Andrew Breitbart said, “politics is downstream from culture.” Yet this was not always the case.


According to journalists and editors who cover the entertainment industry for conservative news outlets, the current pop culture obsession in right-wing media represents a significant break with its own past. I spoke to over a dozen of these professionals while researching my book Pop Culture, Politics, and the News: Entertainment Journalism in the Polarized Media Landscape, and they characterized the shift as a recent one, and audience-driven.

Previously, in the wake of the great cultural schisms that embittered the right beginning in the 1960s, the target market for conservative news tended to have little overlap with the audience for youth-skewing mainstream Hollywood entertainment. In fact, many members of this mostly older, conservative news audience could be described as deliberate “pop culture avoiders,” actively shunning Hollywood products due to their perceptions of their irredeemable moral depravity and left-wing bias.

If this audience sees mainstream pop culture as something entirely foreign and alienating to them, then it is understandable that they would prefer not to see, hear, or read about it all. Indeed, when confronted with this kind of coverage in their favorite conservative news outlets, the reaction has been historically so unfavorable that these outlets were essentially forced to be “pop culture avoiders” themselves.

For decades, this negative audience feedback loop has played out time and time again in the offices of conservative media outlets. The journalists I spoke to recounted how whenever they would talk about Hollywood entertainment in their work — even when harshly criticizing it from a right-wing point of view — they would inevitably get angry emails from, as one put it, “cranky old people” who complained that the entire topic was so unseemly that it was unworthy of their attention.

However, in recent years, the tide has been starting to turn. Younger members of the conservative news audience, so it seems, are far more pop culture-savvy than their elders, even to the point of being full-throated pop culture fans. For this younger audience, the entertainment industry is viewed not as a lost cause to shun, but rather as a battlefield to be conquered in the name of the right. As one conservative pop culture commentator noted regarding his audience, “When I started, they weren’t talking about this, and now they are, and now they pay attention. And the younger they are, the more they pay attention.”

In the eyes of many in the right-wing news media, the audience’s burgeoning embrace of a “pop culture war” mentality has come not a moment too soon, as they have been convinced for quite some time that the entertainment field must be one of their central focal points. Such a philosophy is largely attributable to the influence of the late Andrew Breitbart, the right-wing media entrepreneur behind the famous “politics is downstream from culture” phrase that has become enshrined over time in conservative circles as the “Breitbart Doctrine.”

By “culture,” Breitbart wasn’t just referring to culture war issues in the broadest sense, like debates about gay people and abortions. He meant, quite literally, pop culture. As he wrote in his book Righteous Indignation, published a year before his sudden passing in 2012, “Hollywood is more important than Washington. … What happens in front of the cameras on a soundstage at the Warner Bros. lot often makes more difference to the fate of America than what happens in the backrooms … on Capitol Hill.”

Inside the offices of right-wing media outlets, the “downstream from culture” line is repeated over and over as a kind of mantra — indeed, it was the first thing to come up, unprompted, in nearly every interview I conducted. For over a decade now, this “Breitbart Doctrine” has urged conservative journalists and editors to take on pop culture as one of their primary political battlegrounds, and it appears as though the audience is finally starting to catch on.

Certainly, Breitbart was not the first pundit to attack Hollywood from the right. As far back as the 1990s, one could find relatively high-minded cultural commentary and even film reviews from writers like Jonah Goldberg and John Podhoretz in the pages of National Review. Also on the menu for conservative critics of yore were intermittent servings of “moral panic” aimed at sex, violence, and anti-Christian sentiment in mainstream entertainment (and even further back in time, during McCarthyism, conservative-minded newspaper columnists like Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper were known for railing against suspected communists in Hollywood, even naming names and destroying careers in the process). But Breitbart’s enduring legacy is that he was the first to introduce a consistent, day-to-day editorial focus on pop culture topics from a right-wing partisan perspective at an institutional level.

His mission of embracing entertainment as a means of positively advancing a conservative political agenda, rather than decrying and shunning it altogether, is also key to his vision — Breitbart was a self-described “pop culture-infused, wannabe hipster” and former Hollywood employee who got his start delivering scripts, and he initially aspired to a career as a comedy writer. His subsequent disaffection with an entertainment industry establishment that treated conservatives like him “as though they suffer from highly contagious leprosy,” and his vow to take it over from the outside with his own media empire, now reads as a kind of “villain origin story” in the right’s broader push into pop culture warfare.

Prior to the “Breitbart Doctrine,” the conservative movement’s take on mainstream entertainment media was largely one of scandalized moral outrage over the supposed corruption of youth — if and when it was paying attention to pop culture at all. The film critic Michael Medved epitomized this approach with his 1992 book Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values, in which he longed for the good old pre-1960s days, when Hollywood movies were produced under the strict Motion Picture Production Code and offered safe, sanitized fun for the whole family. This narrow focus on Hollywood’s seeming violations of Christian family values represents an older paradigm — these days, you don’t hear much from right-wing media about excessive violence in entertainment (and on the rare occasion that you do, critics are quick to point out the glaring hypocrisy of the right denouncing fictional violence at the same time as it has increasingly embraced Donald Trump’s very real violent rhetoric).

By contrast, you’ll surely hear a lot of grumbling from conservative commentators every time a movie franchise casts a woman or a performer of color in a role that was previously played by a white man. In the post-Breitbart paradigm, pop culture is framed not just as morally decadent but also, and far more importantly, as “woke” — the right’s new favorite buzzword to describe any and all cultural output (or public policy, or anything for that matter) that is imbued with left-progressive social values.

The right’s mounting battle against “woke” pop culture makes a lot more sense when considering its growing anxieties over the loss of social status. As political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart argue in the book Cultural Backlash, status anxiety is perhaps the key driving force behind today’s right-wing populism and grievance politics. Ultimately, what is at stake is a sense of esteem — that feeling of being at the top of the social and cultural ladder and having that position constantly reflected back to you in the media. Anxieties about the loss of social status help account for why topics as seemingly trivial as casting news for cartoon and mermaid movies now loom so large in the right-wing media’s imagination — to no small degree, pop culture provides the perfect microcosm for aggrieved straight white men to chart their diminishing social dominance in real time. It’s a convenient symbolic target to which they can channel their anger.

Today’s right-wing news media establishment is not merely content to throw spitballs at “woke” Hollywood. As one editor at a conservative news site told me, the goal is to “engage with culture,” not just rage at it. After all, Breitbart’s vision was all about the right’s long-term political success being dependent on its cultural success, or, as he bluntly put it in Righteous Indignation, “young people suckle at the teat of popular culture—but by refusing to fight for their attention, we lose by default.”

Figures like the Daily Wire’s Candace Owens, who has achieved notoriety for cozying up to “canceled” celebrities just as much as mocking those that she deems “woke,” offer a signpost of where this is all headed in the long term. In February 2021, the Daily Wire even went as far as inking a film production deal with fired Mandalorian actor and extremely online Trump supporter Gina Carano, which company co-founder Ben Shapiro heralded as the dawn of “the cultural resistance.”

The conservative news media may have shunned entertainment in the past out of a market necessity, but now they are increasingly eager to get into the business and take their audience with them. Their first release, however, the notably violent Carano-starring Terror on the Prairie, was widely deemed a failure after its feeble box office showing and complaints from conservatives that it was not sufficiently right-wing. For now, they’re still mostly stuck championing ostensibly “anti-woke” entertainment success stories like The Super Mario Bros. Movie, and fomenting jeers and backlash. Still, they’re certainly not done trying to paddle their way upstream.


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Social media restricted in Senegal amid political unrest – NetBlocks



NetBlocks metrics confirm the restriction of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, Telegram and other social media platforms in Senegal on 1 June 2023. The measure comes amid widespread protests over the sentencing of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko.

Real-time network data show the restrictions in effect on Senegal’s leading mobile provider Orange (Sonatel) with restrictions subsequently also observed on Free (Tigo). The study is taken from a sample size of 4000 measurements from 120 vantage points across Senegal. Unrelated platforms have remained available without restriction. This class of disruption can be worked around using VPN services, which are able to circumvent government internet censorship measures.

What’s happening in Senegal?

Ousmane Sonko, a prominent opposition figure in Senegal, has been sentenced to two years in jail on charges of “corrupting youth,” leading to widespread protests in Dakar and other major cities. The court acquitted Sonko of rape and death threat charges but found him guilty of immoral behavior towards individuals younger than 21. The sentence could potentially bar Sonko from running in the upcoming presidential election. Protests have broken out in response to the verdict, with Sonko’s supporters claiming the charges are politically motivated and part of a plot to stymie his political career


Senegal has a history of using social media restrictions to control protests. In 2021, NetBlocks found that authorities limited access to social media and messaging apps, in addition to measures targeting traditional media.

Senegal’s government has also faced a series of activist cyberattacks over the treatment of Sonko, which brought down several state websites and online platforms hosted on the government ADIE network earlier in the week.

NetBlocks recommends against the use of network disruptions and social media restrictions, given their disproportionate impact to fundamental rights including freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

Further reading:



Internet performance and service reachability are determined via NetBlocks web probe privacy-preserving analytics. Each measurement consists of latency round trip time, outage type and autonomous system number aggregated in real-time to assess service availability and latency in a given country. Network providers and locations are enumerated as vantage point pairs. The root cause of a service outage may be additionally corroborated by means of traffic analysis and manual testing as detailed in the report.

NetBlocks is an internet monitor working at the intersection of digital rights, cyber-security and internet governance. Independent and non-partisan, NetBlocks strives to deliver a fair and inclusive digital future for all.

press | contact ] Graphics and visualizations are provided for fair use in unaltered form reflecting the meaning and intent in which they were published, with clear credit and source attribution to NetBlocks. Intellectual property rights are protected including but not limited to key findings, facts and figures, trademarks, copyrights, and original reporting, are held by NetBlocks. Citation and source attribution are required at the point of use.


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Opinion: Social media, news outlets should kiss and make up – Winnipeg Free Press




The doctrine of mutually assured destruction — which arose in the 1960s as part of the global debate about the present danger of nuclear war — suggests that two opponents who are powerful enough to destroy each other will likely avoid conflict to ensure their mutual survival. One can only hope the world’s social media companies, and the most prominent news organizations, are familiar with the concept.

For many years now, governments in many countries have been sparring with the giants of technology and social media — Meta (parent of Facebook and Instagram) and Google in particular — to find a larger and more reliable revenue stream to support news organizations.


In short, traditional business models that sustained news organizations have been eviscerated by digital media, where the giants of the sector operate with a virtual monopoly that sucks up nearly 80 per cent of all money spent on digital advertising worldwide. Recognizing the important role that news organizations play in the fabric of democracy, governments have pressed social media companies to pay more for the news content that circulates on their platforms.

The latest conflict surrounds Bill C-18, the Online News Act, which would force social media companies to negotiate more and better deals for the traditional news content they share on their platforms. (Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg News photo).

Although these battles have taken the combatants right up to the edge of mutually assured destruction, cooler heads always seem to prevail. However, there is always a chance that at some point, someone will do something really stupid.

The latest conflict surrounds Bill C-18, the Online News Act, which would force social media companies to negotiate more and better deals for the traditional news content they share on their platforms. It is expected to clear the Senate before Parliament breaks for the summer, and head toward proclamation.

The companies argue they already support Canadian news through things like the Google News Showcase, which pays modest sums to news organizations that agree to post there. They also claim the bill would massively inflate the amount of that support.

As a result, both Google and Meta recently threatened to block Canadian news content from their platforms if the bill is enacted without changes.

At this point, you should ask how a fight between governments and social media companies could qualify as a form of mutually assured destruction?

Many Canadians implicitly understand the damage that could be done to news organizations if they could no longer use social media to drive readers to their content.

This week, executives from some of country’s largest news organizations described the possible exclusion from social media as an existential threat that would erode both readership/viewership and what little digital advertising money they earn now.

However, what’s at risk for the tech companies?

Although different social media platforms have different purposes, a significant quantity of social media content is either postings made directly by journalists and news organizations, or by users reacting to news stories.

The tech companies regularly claim less than 10 per cent of all traffic involves news. And yet, social media is acknowledged as one of the most important tools for the distribution and consumption of news. Depending on the source, anywhere from one-third to half of all adults use social media to get their news.

Depending on the source, anywhere from one-third to half of all adults use social media to get their news.

Put another way, most of us have come to rely on the fact that social media includes news. By various estimates, somewhere around 75 per cent of Facebook users identify messaging friends and family as their No. 1 use. However, close to 60 per cent say they use Facebook to keep up on current events.

So, even if the amount of content is small, the interest it has for social media users is quite high. And in that equation, we find a reasonable amount of peril for the companies that operate the platform.

It’s also important to note that many social media companies are struggling to increase their audience. Facebook, in particular, is fighting against stagnating subscriber numbers; over the site’s total number of users has grown substantially in the last 10 years but has been steady at just under three billion for the last three years.

There is enough evidence to make the case that both news organizations and social media companies are co-dependent. News is a popular feature on social media and given that Facebook and Google don’t create news content, they obviously have an interest in making sure someone else can.

How do we get beyond the standoff?

The smart money would say that Google and Meta are bluffing about cutting news out of the feeds Canadians receive. The companies tried a similar strategy in Australia, where news content was stripped from Google and Facebook in February 2022 for eight days.

The Australian government held firm, and the tech companies relented and struck deals to pay news organizations.

The question is whether the level of support demanded by Bill C-18 is so much bigger than what they’re providing right now that the companies are willing to edge closer to destruction.

As long as both sides are willing to acknowledge their co-dependence, everything will work out. Unless they forget about words like co-dependence. And then things will get ugly.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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Will Google's AI Plans Destroy the Media? – New York Magazine



Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images


Early this year, Google teased a fundamental change to its core product, the search engine through which much of the world accesses the web. Soon, the company said, Google would start using AI to “distill complex information and multiple perspectives into easy-to-digest formats.” By May, the company had a real product to share.

For Google, it was an obvious and incremental feature update combining two of the company’s products: a text generator plugged into a search engine, basically. Searchers ask a question, and Google tries to answer it with short, article-style “snapshots.”

For publishers, however — of news, how-to content, reviews, recommendations, reference material, and a range of other content one might describe as existing to “distill complex information and multiple perspectives into easy-to-digest formats” — it looked like nothing less than an existential crisis. Google was getting into content, automating the work of its partners, and dramatically altering the terms of its informal deal with publishers that has sustained digital media for years: You make content; we send traffic; everyone sells ads. If this wasn’t a threat to journalism directly, it was certainly a threat to the journalism business. Google, it seemed, was eager to cut the publishers out.

It’s early, still, and AI search won’t threaten much of anything if it fundamentally doesn’t work, or if users don’t like it, which we’ll know soon enough. But it doesn’t have to be perfect, or even great, to dramatically alter the online economy. A stickier question is whether Google, possessed of a new capability to inflict massive harm on digital publishers and the web in general — and meanwhile battling very different firms for AI dominance — will decide, in the coming months, that it is in its own business interest to do so.

In its current form, Google’s Search Generative Experience will answer a question about the debt ceiling with a lengthy attempt to summarize the news.

Up top, searchers get a 272-word summary of the news with a bit of background. Its citations, which are hidden behind a small button in the upper-right portion of the screen, include a consulting firm, a think tank, and a slew of news organizations, including the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and NBC. Conventional search results are well beyond the bottom of the screen; on this issue, the information was accurate, though it’s still pretty easy to get tripped up.

Media executives are sounding the alarm. “Our content is being harvested and scraped and otherwise ingested to train AI engines,” said News Corp. CEO Robert Thomson at the INMA World Congress of News Media last week. “These are super-snippets containing all the effort and insight of great journalism but designed so the reader will never visit a journalism website, thus fatally undermining that journalism.” He added, “Content mining is an extractive industry.” Brian Morrissey, the former editor of the media trade publication Digiday, outlined publishing’s Google predicament at The Rebooting, predicting the decline of the web page in general:

As Google eliminated all credible competition, search became a mostly reliable distribution channel. The bargain was always for publishers to play by Google’s rules, then make money from ads that very often ran through Google’s ad stack and let them wet their beak. It was a roundabout way of paying tribute to the king. Nobody likes taxes, but if someone controls the distribution, you pay up …

That’s breaking. Google’s demo of its new AI-fueled search engine heralds a new phase of search that will throw the page’s central role in publishing strategies into question.

“From Google’s demos, what’s clear is less traffic will go to publishers,” he said. Less traffic means less of everything that keeps modern media companies afloat: advertising revenue, subscription conversions, e-commerce revenue.

“At the risk of overstating the potential consequences,” wrote Matt Novak at Forbes, Google’s search overhaul “will be like dropping a nuclear bomb on an online publishing industry that’s already struggling to survive.”

Google stressed that this was an experimental feature and that, for now, it would be limited to testers who opted in. Certain categories of queries would not trigger the snapshots, the company said — sensitive medical questions, for example — and each answer can be checked, sort of, by clicking a button that reveals linked citations for each sentence. Classic results would still be present, though less visible.

Still, the change would represent a fundamental shift in what Google does, how users interact with it, and how it interacts with the web around it. For billions of people, Google is the default interface for the rest of the online world. It’s the portal through which all other sites are accessed. It’s the box — on your phone or your computer or your tablet — with which you interact so often you take it for granted. It’s a de facto governing authority for the parts of the internet that aren’t hidden away inside social platforms and apps and has unparalleled sway over what gets seen online and by how many people. If implemented at all, by virtue of Google’s size, it would have a significant effect on traffic for pretty much any digital publisher.

This is a facet of the larger AI story — which is to say it’s about automation. But it’s also a story of a large platform deciding to compete more aggressively in the marketplace it controls. With snapshots, Google is pushing into some of the most lucrative parts of the content business over which it already exerts enormous influence. That the sorts of content it seems to be automating first are explainers, guides, and product rankings is no coincidence — these are styles of content that publishers currently produce with Google traffic in mind. If Google hired tens of thousands of contractors to produce “snapshots” and product recommendations for popular searches, it would be easy enough to conceptualize and very bad news for a number of Google-dependent online industries; that it’s doing so with “generative AI” suggests that what was holding it back from attempting to replicate or replace some of the most trafficked sites on the web wasn’t some lofty notion of how Google should function as a market or an ecosystem, some sense of stewardship over “the web” as a concept, but cost.

A lot of dark predictions about AI are counterintuitively sort of naïve, imagining the technology as a distinct and novel entity with its own motives or as a phenomenon that will be evenly experienced across the economy. Google, here, teases a more familiar story, utterly devoid of novelty: Large firm seeks efficiencies and uses machines to achieve them.

The doomsayers have a point, in other words: If Google commits to summarizing more and more of the content it used to serve, the companies that make it are in for an even worse time than they’re already having. The vast majority of publishers are individually insignificant to Google and have no collective power to speak of. With apologies to Mr. Thomson, News Corp. properties, with their search-engine-optimization teams and content strategies, are already scrounging for traffic from the margins of Google’s user experience. As any SEO professional will tell you, it wouldn’t take something so dramatic as an “AI-search makeover” to lose a significant chunk of your inbound readership from Google. Small mysterious updates to its search algorithms have pitted publishers against the company’s machine-learning systems for years.

In publishing, however, there is also a tendency to overestimate the forecasting abilities, and general competence, of larger and more successful technology companies. Google, one of the largest tech companies in the world, has a lot to gain and lose by altering search, which generated $162 billion of Google’s $224 billion in advertising revenue in 2022. It has skin in the game. Will Google users be happy with a machine-improvised Wikipedia article at the top of their search results? Will it change their relationship to the sponsored links at the heart of Google’s business? Will they take product recommendations seriously from a Google bot? Will Google’s AI testing phase result in doubling down on content automation or quietly rolling it back? Will that be because users don’t care for it, or because they do, but it’s in a way that threatens Google’s business? Their predicament is the AI dilemma in not-so-miniature: a confrontation with the essential weirdness of generating synthetic information.

Replacing outbound links to the web with machine-synthesized summaries of the web is both an obvious use case for generative AI and a direct threat to the economy in which a range of content — including journalism — is currently produced. But its success depends on a few assumptions: that the summaries are good or, far more important, that people think they’re good and trust them; that, in the long term, there remains sufficient scrape-able content to summarize; that the web ecosystem Google will be exploiting won’t be itself overrun with AI-generated content, leading to a death spiral of content credibility and relevance; that stepping deeper into the content business makes any sense for Google, the leadership of which might be acting out of fear of missing out on the next big thing, at the company’s peril. Some of these issues are less speculative than others. For decades now, the entire web has been optimizing itself for Google, modifying and producing content with search traffic in mind; Google, which was built around the idea of surfacing and organizing the world’s information, has instead created the mother of all spam problems, which it struggles daily to solve.

But from the user perspective, Google as an AI-powered answer engine is also uncharacteristically aligned: It casts present-day Google Search as something broken that needs to be fixed — which, well, maybe it is. Rather than contending with a cluttered interface and a gauntlet of advertising to get to a credible link, the company has teased something clean, clear, and refocused on results. The company’s AI-search demos have doubled as scathing critiques of the mess that search has become and of a business model that depends on interruption, diversion, and extra engagement. Maybe this pristine alternative vision is indeed what we end up with, in which case the web as we knew it is shoved off the page, a decades-old online civilization of websites reduced to training data for slick chatbots.

Or maybe, after a brief detour, Google’s true identity as an advertising business reassumes control and once again draws it, and its users, back into the lucrative mess, where they will continue to tap and click their way through interfaces that are designed as much to monetize them as to assist them in anything resembling a “search.” For Google, it might be better to have a web to exploit than to have no web at all.

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