What a fiasco! The rise of alt-right activity online has created a big problem for mainstream media: Should news outlets work to debunk shameful conspiracy theories, or is it better to ignore them and hope they go away?
This is the central issue in the debate over Megyn Kelly’s NBC interview with Alex Jones, the infamous alt-right radio star who has denied that the Sandy Hook school killings happened and calls it a government hoax (gross, right?!). NBC had faced intense pressure from advertisers and citizens to pull the interview, which happened in June.
Research published by the Tow Center at Columbia University says:
“Even debunking falsehoods can reinforce and amplify them. In addition, if a media outlet declines to cover a story that has widely circulated in the far-right and mainstream conservative press, it is accused of lying and promoting a liberal agenda.
“Far-right subcultures are able to exploit this, using the media to spread ideas and target potential new recruits. A number of factors make the mainstream media susceptible to manipulation from the far-right. The cost-cutting measures instituted by traditional newspapers since the 1990s have resulted in less fact-checking and investigative reporting.
“At the same time, there is a constant need for novelty to fill a 24/7 news cycle driven by cable networks and social media. Many of those outlets have benefited from the new and increased partisanship in the country, meaning there is now more incentive to address memes and half-truths, even if it’s only to shoot them down.
“When CNN interviewed Spencer, for instance, the chyron read “Alt-Right Leader Asks if Jews Are People.” It is unlikely that CNN would have given a Ku Klux Klan leader similar coverage. In political punditry, this is called “opening the Overton window,” or expanding the range of what is politically acceptable—and this is a major goal of the alt-right. (Overton is a reference to a public policy researcher, as well as to a novel by Glenn Beck.)”