In Network Propaganda, Professors Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts argue that the right-wing media ecosystem operates largely independently from the mainstream media. While the mainstream media includes newspapers, broadcast stations, magazines, websites, and other “norm-constrained” media sources, a separate media ecosystem is organized around Fox News, Breitbart, and other right-wing media platforms. These outlets are less constrained by journalistic norms (like basic fact-checking), are often created by political partisans for the purpose of shaping politics, and distributed primairly through social media. The right-wing media ecosystem “exhibits all the characteristics of an echo chamber that radicalizes its inhabitants, destabilizes their ability to tell truth from fiction, and undermines their confidence in institutions.”
These outlets, and the online echo chamber they feed into, manufacture much of the culture war outrage. In this context, the right-wing media ecosystem has taken special interest in higher education, taking aim at “woke” professors, campus policies such as trigger warnings and safe spaces, “critical race theory,” as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives on campus. A number of “media outlets,” such as College Fix and Campus Reform, have been established by right-wing political operatives and specialize in writing outrage stories specifically about higher education. These stories are then mainlined into the broader right-wing media ecosystem. As such, it is not uncommon for something a professor said in class, during a public lecture, over social media, or in a research article to spread through the right-wing media ecosystem, gaining traction across social media platforms. As a result, stories that no mainstream news organization would cover–such as what one professor said on Twitter or an assignment during a first-year seminar–can quickly become national news within the right-wing media ecosystem.
When this happens faculty members often receive all kinds of targeted harassment, including hateful messages sent to their inboxes, social media feeds, DMs, office phones, and even by mail. This can be incredibly disorienting, especially because the outrage being generated is often largely disconnected from what was actually said.
Unfortunately, faculty often experience such harassment in isolation. And many university administrations respond badly–often adopting the right-wing media’s version of what happened. (See our resources for administrators about how to respond effectively)
However, it is important to remember that these attacks are not organic but rather generated within a densely interconnected, highly partisan, and well-funded political and media network. As such, we recommend “following the money.” Who is publishing the “story”? Who funds them? And what are their stated political agendas? Understanding who these groups are, and what political ends they serve, is often critical for effectively responding to targeted harassment.