Trump’s media favorites battle for the Trump trophyNovember 14, 2020
MAGA nation may be turning its back on Fox News — but it doesn’t know where to go.
Parler, the “free speech”-friendly version of Twitter, saw a massive explosion of growth right after the election — only to be hit with a viral claim that the social media platform was owned by George Soros. QAnon supporters revolted against Newsmax, a conservative cable channel owned by Trump confidant Chris Ruddy, after the network used a photo of a man wearing a hoodie to describe a white nationalist. Nationalist blogs began running hit pieces on Fox News, claiming its viewership was down, and Trump, reportedly mulling his own media enterprise when he leaves the White House, claimed that its ratings had “collapsed,” because “they forgot the Golden Goose.”
While Fox News still easily bests newer networks like Newsmax in viewership, a Newsmax show on Thursday night drew more than 1 million viewers for the first time, according to Nielsen TV ratings. And since Fox News network committed the ultimate heresy — being the first to declare Biden had flipped Arizona, and later acknowledging Biden’s victory — the network’s disenchanted viewers may now be up for grabs.
So the race is on to determine which outlet — cable, radio, internet or otherwise — will embrace Trumpism the tightest. And the competition is driving the far-right MAGA echo chamber to cannibalize itself.
At the center of it all is an impulse for confirmation bias, according to misinformation and extremist researchers. Trump supporters, they said, are looking for a place to migrate that promotes their theories on why their candidate lost. That’s why they’ve increasingly gravitated to places like One America News Network and Newsmax, two Trump-friendly conservative outlets that are more inclined to embrace the debunked ballot-fraud conspiracies Fox News will not touch. Similarly, Parler has fewer compunctions on fact-checking the evidence-challenged claims about fraudulent ballots that Twitter has started regularly flagging.
“The exodus from Fox to Newsmax and Parler is typical of a pattern in social movements, where they blame the infrastructure for their defeat,” said Joan Donovan, the research director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Policy, which studies and monitors the spread of misinformation. And with disinformation dominating the right’s debate over why Trump lost, “attempts to moderate that misinformation is being used to allege that the platform companies are colluding with the Dems and Fox.”
Many of the voter-fraud theories Trump and his allies are pushing have bubbled up from internet conspiracy theorists — MAGA influencers, fringe journalists and extremist commentators who would never appear on Fox News, but have massive followings online. None of them have added up to evidence of widespread voter fraud.
But that hasn’t stopped Newsmax from boasting on social media that it is the only network that hasn’t called the election for Biden, citing ongoing questions about the election results, or Gateway Pundit, a site known for trafficking in anti-Democrat conspiracy theories, from attacking Fox for “spewing anti-Trump propaganda."
And it hasn’t stopped MAGA figures from turning on one another. Populist news sites like Big League Politics have attacked the organizers of Stop the Steal, a loose network of Trump-affiliated groups organizing mini-protests against the election results. MAGA influencers have razed conservative allies expressing slightly more realistic expectations.
“It's bad. Worse than I've ever seen,” Donovan said.
Infighting has been a permanent feature of the MAGA movement since the very beginning: even back in December 2016, the most prominent members of Trump’s base were clashing over inauguration night parties. It hasn’t stopped since then, with various figures and outlets being drummed out of the movement — and then welcomed back in — depending on the vagaries of the news cycle.
Often, the only thing uniting the MAGA tribes was their support for Trump, backing him through his fights with the media, liberals and the so-called deep state. But these bonds quickly break down — and friends can instantly become enemies — when any group or figure shows dissension from each other in the movement, or is deemed insufficiently MAGA by their peers.
Michael Edison Hayden, senior investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit group that monitors extremist activity and hate groups, said this “friend-enemy distinction” is a hallmark of movements peddling propaganda. And the trait goes into overdrive when “dad is wounded.”
“At this particular moment, there are going to be people whose version of infighting involves them just seeing who can be there most for Trump in his hour of need,” said Hayden, who studies extremism and right-wing movements.
Currently, the MAGA movement has loosely agreed that Fox News is the enemy — and attacking the house that Roger Ailes built is guaranteed to win plaudits from the president and his base.
Newsmax, for one, has begun marketing its pro-Trump content as more popular than that of Fox, running ads claiming that the outlet’s cable news channel is drawing more viewers than CNBC and Fox Business combined, citing Nielsen data. And the overt marketing campaign has paid off for the lesser-known conservative network, with its ratings climbing rapidly overnight.
“The President just called me and congratulated Newsmax on our ratings explosion,” Ruddy, the network’s CEO, tweeted on Thursday. “@POTUS @realDonaldTrump is watching Newsmax, and also wants every vote counted!”
Beyond that, however, the competition is chaotic, driven by whatever conspiracy theory bubbles up through the internet first, who leaps on it the quickest and who spreads it the quickest.
A random user in the obscure internet community, TheDonald.win, for instance, kick-started a baseless conspiracy that the voting tabulation company Dominion switched 2.7 million Trump votes to Biden, a claim that immediately went on OAN and Gateway Pundit, then to Trump’s Twitter feed. The allegation appears to have spun out of a minor human error that was corrected.
Separately, Ali Alexander, a pro-Trump operative and one of the organizers of Stop The Steal, fueled a dubious theory dubbed #Maidengate, hoping to find people who used a maiden name to vote a second time in another state.
Then there’s SharpieGate, allegations of dead voters, rumors of ballots being dumped in trash cans, and secret watermarks — all untrue, and all pushed by a network of online influencers and websites, jockeying for eyeballs.
Even Trump’s own government has been repeatedly debunking these allegations.
“These very viral figures have created a kind of alternative media landscape underneath Fox News,” Hayden said. “As Trump embraces this kind of unreality, this sort of fiction world in which he's won the presidency, it's not surprising that his base is going to those people who would be willing to go with him.”
They may be in competition with each other but Kristen Doerer, the managing editor of Right Wing Watch, noted that MAGA messaging remains the same.
“They have been built off of MAGA world and their success in part depends on Trump’s, so there’s this note of desperation built into their ‘reporting’ and commentary,” said Doerer, who monitors right-wing groups and extremism.
The infighting, too, could also reflect the strange state of the MAGA movement after Trump leaves office. Outside of vocal support for Trump and their reflexive hatred for anything considered anti-Trump, few within the movement can pinpoint anything that keeps them together.
Without Trump in office — or even in public life — it’s more than likely that these disparate groups fragment back into their own separate zones online. White nationalists, after all, can’t exist in the same movement as hardline pro-Israel activists. Anarcho-libertarians don’t naturally fit with more extreme evangelicals. And QAnon supporters can hardly stomach anyone reporting any unfavorable news about Trump, even if it’s from Newsmax.
Disinformation and extremists researchers described current MAGA culture as something of a Schrödinger's cat, the hypothetical animal that could be either alive or dead, inside a box containing a lethal poison that may or may not have been released. In this case, without knowing if the country truly has an appetite for reversing the election, it’s hard to tell whether the MAGA movement is alive or dead.
Media outlets like Fox News are trying to make that determination right now, while others are positioning themselves for a MAGA movement that remains alive and well.
“Partisan media is fickle and when the incumbent loses, there is a tendency to blame the messenger,” noted Donovan, the Shorenstein Center director. “Here though, there are millions to be made on blaming Fox, so there is a big profit motive to drive the wedge by OAN, Newsmax and Parler.”