A journal of television and new media

That’s Democratainment: Obama, Rumor Bombs, and Primary Definers
Jayson Harsin / The American University of Paris


New Yorker Obama Michelle Cover

The New Yorker condenses Internet rumors re: Obama

A recent survey shows nearly 20% of Americans now believe Barack Obama is a Muslim. That’s about 56 million Americans, a number that has climbed considerably since 2008 (to say nothing of the 43% or 120 million Americans who are “unsure”).1 The bigotry of the phenomenon aside, its durability points to the use of rumor bombs (RBs) to elect and govern, and to the role of a new kind of authoritative source therein.

In 2008, FlowTV published my article on the RB, in which I analyzed issue-agendas that convergence culture produced in the 2008 presidential election, including the RB that Obama is a Muslim (RBOIAM). I argued there was an agenda-setting interplay between old and new media technologies, enabled by YouTube, Adobe Photoshop, and Facebook, among others associated with the revolution in cultural production, distribution, and reception—all of which have been associated by some with a new democratizing agency but which I insisted has economic, political rhetorical, and social constraints. 2 Since then, other RBs have exploded in American media culture with greater and lesser damage (e.g. “death panels” RB regarding Obama’s healthcare bill, and the “racist” Shirley Sherrod RB).

Now I argue not only that accounts of democratizing cultural production must confront the contingencies of distribution in a context of information warfare (exemplified by RBs); but, further, that Hall’s concept of “primary definers,” significantly criticized in media- and cultural studies of the late 80s and early 90s, returns with a new applicability in convergence culture (CC), with the caveat that primary definers/opinion leaders have changed.3 “Primary definers” refers to elite sources who define hegemonic issues and frames for journalists who repeat and alter them. The media capital they wield complicates theories of democratizing media production and distribution in the forging of widely attended issues in public spheres.

First, a brief recollection of RB. This infowar concept explains the salience of public issues in CC, where more accessible productive and distributive agency afforded by new media technologies converges with globalizing news business trends (infotainment) and negative politics, where character and trust direct consent and support. This fiduciary rapport refers to both the subject of the rumor and media form providing the encounter, whether on a blog, website, radio or TV talk show, prestige press story, YouTube/Facebook/Twitter post, or a personal email from friends, family, organization, or unfamiliar source.4

In this context, the very definition of news is changing.5 As of March 2010, 37% of Americans say they have contributed to news creation, commented on news or shared it via social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter (Pew Center, March 1, 2010). User-driven news content sites such as Digg, Reddit, and Delicious create newsworthiness via popularity. Consider the interface for social media YouTube: from top-bottom “Recommended videos” (based on search history), “featured videos,” and then a popularity section that actually resembles categories of traditional news: Entertainment, News and Politics, Sports, Music and “Most Viewed.”

Surveys on issue salience in the 2008 election suggested a significant influence of web-imbricated infotainment and RBs on public discourse.6

Obama securing the Democratic nomination was the most salient event. But at least two infotainment issues rounded off the top 6:

• Vice-Presidential candidate Palin’s “pregnant teenage daughter”
• Rev. Wright’s speeches

The top ten offered another infotainment event, Sarah Palin hosting the late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live (#8 with 56% having heard “a lot”). Rounding out the top 20 were Rev. Wright’s videos and the RB that Obama was close friends with 60s radical-dubbed “terrorist” William Ayers. Other tabloid issues included “McCain and female lobbyist” (#25), Saturday Night Live skits parodying Palin (42%, #34), and the New Yorker cover restating RBOIAM and a terrorist (41%, #36). RBOIAM was the 31st most salient issue/event overall in the campaign, despite far more stories appearing about other events on TV news. This suggests the Internet’s agenda-setting power via YouTube, blogs, conservative sites, forums, and through viral email.

YouTube Preview Image

Among those who say Obama is a Muslim, 60 percent learned about his religion from the (old) news and the Internet, suggesting that their opinions are fueled by misinformation in CC. Some of these “stories” originated on the Internet (RBOIAM), while others originated in old news media and then reached millions through YouTube clips posing as evidence, and further circulated through various viral social media and email.7

To understand how RBOIAM exemplifies an emergent primary definer in a political geometry of distribution/media capital, one must accept the qualification that the distribution/diffusion of democratized cultural production is not at all democratic, but often depends on powerful network nodes. These nodes are similar to Hall’s primary definers.

While Campaign 2008 has been celebrated for the diversity of news content and the ability of non-elites to set news agendas and share information, from “Obama Girl” videos to the first YouTube “debates,” the origins of many RBs do not appear to be from novice opinion-makers at all. Andy Martin, Jerome Corsi, Daniel Pipes, and Debbie Schlussel, all key nodes in the network of “Obama is a Muslim” RB circulation, are also all professional conservative newsmakers with popular blogs, books, and mainstream newspaper editorials and cable “news” show appearances.8 These opinion leaders exemplify a new authority via media capital and attention.

Technorati ranks blogs’ “authority,” where “authority is calculated based on a site’s linking behavior, categorization and other associated data” over time. Authority is on a scale of 0-1000, where 1000 is “the highest possible authority” (http://technorati.com/what-is-technorati-authority/). Daniel Pipes has a technorati authority of 683 (5/20/2010), while Debbie Schlussel=730. Compare their authority with the Huffington Post, which ranks 959. Liberal news site Daily Kos=780; Wonkette=706; Nobel Prize winner and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman=751; Bill Moyers Journal=488; 3-time Pulitizer Prize for Journalism winner Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times ranked only 527. RBer Andy Martin’s “Contrarian Commentary”=119.

Free Republic , where the Muslim RB allegedly first appeared, is a conservative political news clearinghouse, where anyone can post a story. According to the web information company Alexa, Free Republic ranks 1,026 in the U.S. (with 8,397 sites linking to it). Compare that ranking to conservative commentator Michelle Malkin whose site ranks 2,179 in U.S. (www.alexa.com, 5/20/2010). It is very close to “liberal” Talking Points Memo (Joshua Micah Marshall’s site) which has a rank of 1,092. It may be closer to something like liberal Daily Kos’s 1,077 rank with regard to type of posts permitted. However, unlike Free Republic, Daily Kos has a dozen editors who post content (which didn’t stop them from launching the RB that Sarah Palin faked a pregnancy).

Taking RBOIAM as case study, the question of cross-media agenda-setting (noted in the polls on salient issues) may be less about broad democratic agenda-setting of issues (democratic accessibility to production and distribution) in the campaign and now presidency and more about a totally different emergent dynamics of gatekeeping and influence, the primary definers of which do get “stories” from non-professional information-gatherers but then choose to re-circulate them more broadly in society with greater authority based in popularity and attention, what Couldry refers to as “meta-media capital.”9

YouTube Preview Image

In a pre-digital media age,10 Pipes, Corsi, Martin, Schlussel, all major conservative information brokers and opinion leaders holding no position in any major political organization or academic institution would not have received the hearing they did get in the contemporary digital age.11 That some of them did not directly appear on traditional news agendas is beside the point (though networks like Fox and CNN frequently feature these opinion leaders, as Lexis-Nexis transcript searches demonstrate). Rather, they broker and source news.

CC appears to be producing episodes of two-step+ flows and “multi-axial” agenda-setting, which is unlike the trust-based face-to-face influence of community opinion leaders in the pre-digital age, even if such influence also continues in the digital age.12 Now, new e-opinion leaders (as much as well-known old media opinion leaders in the American context such as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, and Jon Stewart), are key nodes in a network and may lead to tipping points for belief or confusion, especially since they are sought by old news media as sources/commentators.13 Research on media and politics in CC must reckon empirically and theoretically with what Klaus Jensen calls three-step (and more) flows,14 something that appears to be happening with cases such as viral emails and FB posts, which move from one trusted source to another in their most successful dynamics, as opposed to anonymous chain emails which may arrive as “spam.”

In addition to RBOIAM, recent RBs about alleged “death panels” enabled by the new American Healthcare Bill and the RB “Shirley Sherrod is a racist” (resulting in her firing/resignation)15 suggest that this phenomenon applies to understanding not just the political vertigo of campaigns in CC, but also the dynamics of governing in it–to say nothing of watching, processing, even influencing it. Let us engage the geometries of circulation, attention, belief, and confusion.

Image Credits:
1. The New Yorker
2. YouTube
3. The Glenn Beck Program

Please feel free to comment.

NOTES

  1. “Growing Number of Americans Say Obama is a Muslim,” The Pew Research Center for People and the Press, August 19, 2010, Retrieved August 20, 2010 at http://people-press.org/report/645/ []
  2. John Hartley, The Uses of Television (New York: Routledge, 1999); Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2006). []
  3. Stuart Hall. et al, Policing the Crisis : Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (London: Macmillan, 1978); Philip Schlesinger, “Rethinking the Sociology of Journalism: Source Strategies and the Limits of Media Centrism,” Public Communication, ed. Marjorie Ferguson (London: Sage, 1999) []
  4. For a lengthier outline of the characteristics of the RB concept see my 2008 article in this journal: http://flowtv.org/2008/12/the-rumor-bomb-on-convergence-culture-and-politics-jayson-harsin-american-university-of-paris/, and Jayson Harsin “The Rumor Bomb ‘John Kerry is French, i.e. Haughty, Foppish, Socialist, and Gay,” The Diffusion of Social Movements, eds. Rebecca Givan and Susan Soule (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). On trust, identification and politics, see Manuel Castells, “Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society”. International Journal of Communication, 1 (1), 238-266. []
  5. Tom Bettag, “Evolving Definitions of News,” Nieman Reports, Winter, 2006, Retrieved 10 April 2010 at http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reportsitem.aspx?id=100291; and the “State of the Media” report for 2010 at http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2010/overview_key_findings.php []
  6. Brian McNair defines infotainment as “journalism in which entertainment values take precedence over information content,” (which may or may not refer to political agendas). Christina Riegert has refined the concept with regard to politics, introducing the term “politicotainment,” defined as “the way the political is represented or negotiated by entertainment formats.” Like my concept of RB, Riegert’s politicotainment stresses a political economy of TV and news, as well as new “promotional machinery” applied equally to policies, celebrities and politicians. See Kristina Riegert, Politicotainment: Television’s Take on the Real (New York: Peter Lang, 2007, 3); Brian McNair, Journalism and Democracy: A Qualitative Evaluation of the Political Public Sphere (London: Routledge, 2000). []
  7. Garrett and Danziger found that while about half of Americans say they used the Internet to keep up with the campaign, “a comparable proportion of individuals (53%) reported that email from friends and family was a source of information.” See Kelly Garrett and James Danziger, Rumors and the Internet in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election, January 22, 2009. Retrieved May 1, 2010 from http://www.comm.ohio-state.edu/kgarrett/rumors09.pdf []
  8. Other RBs also point to the non-novice character of the distribution and agenda-setting. For example, in the “swiftboat” RB about John Kerry in the 2004, Jerome Corsi’s co-authored best-selling book Unfit for Command was part of a well-funded Republican network, where a major Republican donor was funding the group, a major Republican lawyer was defending them, and a major Republican communications consultant designed their ads. See “As Evidence Mounts of GOP Connection to Anti-Kerry Swift Boat Vets, Hume and Dole deny the Obvious,” Media Matters for America, August 26, 2004 Retrieved January 15, 2007 at http://mediamatters.org/research/200408260008 []
  9. Nick Couldry, “Media Meta-Capital: Extending the Range of Bourdieu’s Field Theory,” Theory and Society 32 (5-6), 653-677 []
  10. The point is not that pre-digital news and politics was patently better, but that authority and sourcing has changed. []
  11. See http://www.danielpipes.org/spoken/ for a list of Pipes’ appearances as a source on an issue, a list that includes several appearances on Fox, CNN, MSNBC and NPR, among others. Google and Lexis-Nexis show similar old-new news media agenda sharing for Schlussel, Corsi, and Martin. Their power on the Internet appears to be enough symbolic capital to make them sources on traditional news media. []
  12. See Jennifer Brundidge, “The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and the Meta-Silly Season in Politics: Agenda Setting in the Contemporary Media Environment,” at http://flowtv.org/2008/10/the-daily-show-the-colbert-report-and-the-meta-silly-season-in-politics-agenda-setting-in-the-contemporary-media-environment-jennifer-brundidge-university-of-texas-austin/#footnote_1_2066 []
  13. See Malcolm Gladwell, The Tippling Point (Boston: Little & Brown, 2002). []
  14. Klaus Jensen, Klaus Bruhn Jensen, “Three-step flow,” Journalism, June 2009, 335-337. []
  15. The Shirley Sherrod RB is exemplary for its accelerated power for agenda-setting, where an “anonymous source” sent edited video clips to a conservative digital opinion leader/news broker Andrew Breibart, who posted the video on his news-aggregator Biggovernment.com on Monday July 19. By evening Sherrod had resigned her post in the U.S. Dept of Agriculture. []

Comments

  • nestor said:

    Great article. With all the potential that blog, vlog and social network sites have, for making news stories and reporting more complex, it’s sad (but not surprising) that the mainstream news media have basically used the internet and internet sources as another ideological filter.

  • Jayson Harsin said:

    Thanks, Nestor. People like McChesney and Nichols have recently argued that the phenomenon you describe can only be saved by public funding of “hard” (read old newspaper) journalism, on which TV and Cable news have depended. With their downsizing and infotainment trends, old news becomes the new news you’re describing, sometimes with arguably positive effects, and other times with arguably negative ones. One thing’s sure: this is the future of the war for attention, which is multi-media and self-mass communication (as Manuel Castells has called it), other practices in convergent media culture being often quite differently motivated and more used and commodified than perhaps using and commodifying in terms of larger political and economic struggles.

  • Lee said:

    Great article, Jayson. I think this phenomena is also one – if not the major – means by which special interests (I can only recall right-leaning groups, unsurprisingly!) change the debate surrounding issues in the public spotlight.

    The best, latest examples are the tea baggers who created the RB’s about the death panels and spun healthcare reform as a government takeover, filling the airwaves with this news filler, which disabled true journalism from informing the public. Because some purported media outlets headline RB’s rather than real news, competing media must waste their time responding to these pieces, rather than focusing on what would be helpful to the public, otherwise known as facts, or the truth.

    I look forward to reading more!

  • jayson harsin said:

    Hi Lee, yes, I totally agree about interest groups etc. using this tactic to shift “spotlight” and set news agendas/the attention economy. I have argued this in a longer essay available in draft form on http://aup.academia.edu/jaysonharsin
    cheers,
    J

  • Davian said:

    Unbelievable how well-written and inrofmative this was.

  • jayson harsin said:

    thanks Davian.