JAMIE: Hi. This is Jamie (ph) from Santa Monica, Calif. I'm at home folding laundry from our camping trip. We recently returned from a trip with a paleontologist where we helped to excavate triceratops bones and other fossils that were over 65 million years old. This podcast was recorded at...
SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
1:04 pm on Tuesday, July 20.
JAMIE: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. OK, here's the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Nice.
DAVIS: Sounds like somebody's going to win their what-I-did-this-summer essay when they go back to school in the fall.
PARKS: Triceratops, underrated dinosaur. T-Rex gets all the all the press, you know?
DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting and misinformation.
DAVIS: And today we've got Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting back with us.
STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.
DAVIS: So both of you recently published stories about right-leaning news sites. Miles, let's start with you. You did some reporting on a site called The Daily Wire. What is that?
PARKS: Yeah. So The Daily Wire is this news and opinion site that was started a few years ago by Ben Shapiro, who's the conservative podcast host and author people - a lot of people have probably heard of him. They may not have heard of The Daily Wire. So this is a site that publishes a lot of Shapiro's opinion pieces. But then they also have a news site that mostly aggregates nationwide stories from a bunch of other news outlets, slaps slightly more polarizing or conservative leaning headline on it and then republishes it. Now, this sort of thing, you might be thinking, doesn't sound very special. It sounds like the internet, right?
DAVIS: Yeah, right (laughter).
PARKS: But the difference is The Daily Wire does it better than anyone else on the entire internet, especially on Facebook. They've basically turned this model, which sounds like what, you know, a lot of aggregators do on the internet, but they're doing it the absolute best. It's not even close. They're generating likes, shares and comments on Facebook more than any other news publisher.
DAVIS: How does it compare to, you know, sort of mainstream media brands that people have heard of - The New York Times, Washington Post, NPR?
PARKS: It's kind of mind-blowing, actually. The Daily Wire, in May, it generated more likes, shares and comments on Facebook than The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and NBC News combined. OK. So this is like a league of their own. They're able to generate this sort of Facebook engagement. I think I should say that this engagement isn't exactly the same thing as talking about Facebook reach.
We're not saying that The Daily Wire is reaching the same amount of people as The New York Times, The Washington Post. But they're able to do this very specific thing, which is generate action on Facebook, which we know, you know, there's been a lot of research done that polarizing content is rewarded with more engagement on Facebook. And they, The Daily Wire, are able to key into that fact and basically monetize it. They've built a very successful brand and website based off that idea.
DAVIS: So they have sort of perfected the secret sauce recipe of outrage online.
PARKS: Exactly. Exactly. No one else is even coming close.
DAVIS: That's amazing because there's a lot of outrage on my internet. I don't know about yours (laughter).
PARKS: Yeah, there is. There is.
DAVIS: Stephen, you also had a story, but it was about a different network of news sites, including one that's focused on news in Georgia. What is - what's that one about?
FOWLER: Yeah, so I took a deep dive into the world of the Star News Network. It's a family of digital sites that mimic the look and feel of local news. One of the newest ones is The Georgia Star News, and it was started in November after Georgia's presidential election became so contentious. And really...
DAVIS: I've heard of it.
FOWLER: It's actually still going on, believe it or not, eight months later.
DAVIS: Yeah, it's not over.
FOWLER: And The Georgia Star News went from relative obscurity, started in mid to late November to having a story about the 2020 election and false claims of fraud rocket all the way to the desk of Donald J. Trump, and culminated in the writer of the story getting an exclusive sit-down interview with former President Trump after one of his rallies a couple of weeks ago. And it's a site that, like I said, looks and feels like local news, but really it's pro-Trump commentary.
There is some original reporting, but it's either made up whole cloth of facts or really has this conservative spin, kind of like The Daily Wire. But it's a lot of aggregation, a lot of commentary and a lot of nonsense about the 2020 election. And it's really reached the highest levels of Republican politics in Georgia with a lot of support, both financial and figurative support from the Georgia Republican Party, from leading candidates for several high offices. And it's been a big influence in public policy here.
DAVIS: I want to be careful here because I think I hear a little bit of distinction here - and y'all tell me if I'm wrong. But, you know, we have a long history in this country of partisan media. That doesn't seem new to me. And The Daily Wire is a conservative news site. It has a slant. It has a worldview. It certainly frames stories through a lens. But, Stephen, what you're talking about also sounds like a site that is actively peddling misinformation specifically about the election and suggesting that the election was fraudulent, which we know is information that is fundamentally not true. That is a lie. And that seems like a distinction that we should make clear here. There does seem to be a difference in what we're talking about.
FOWLER: Right. So the Georgia Star News and its publisher, a man named John Fredericks, has been really engaged in the center of claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent and that Joe Biden did not really win Georgia and didn't really win the White House and that there is going to be massive evidence of fraud yet to be uncovered that will overturn the election that here, at least in Georgia, was counted three different times and has already been certified. So it's a completely different game then typically left-leaning sites or right-leaning sites that advocate for specific policies and platforms and candidates but do so from the realm of reality.
PARKS: Yeah, I think it's, like, showing just how much our thinking about information has evolved in the last decade. No longer is information kind of good or bad. I think it's more of a spectrum where you have, you know, this site that Stephen's reporting on that's clearly false information, that's in a whole separate category. I don't know that The Daily Wire could be categorized necessarily as misinformation. Some experts use that word when talking about it, some I talked to did not use it. But at the same time, it is part of this broader ecosystem.
If you look at - I looked at specifically at one point in the story their coverage of COVID. So Ben Shapiro is not an anti-vaxxer, and the site itself does not publish false information around the coronavirus. What they do do, though, is you click on it and all you see is stories that are glorifying this idea of giving people vaccine freedom, freedom to not take the vaccine, or a lot of stories about the side effects that you can get from the vaccines, which, yes, that is true. But if you're only covering or overcovering those specific storylines, then you still kind of fit into this narrative of, oh, the vaccines are something to be wary of or the vaccines are potentially bad. And so it's kind of a broader ecosystem where this site is not publishing falsehoods, but still could be potentially reinforcing some of the same false ideas.
DAVIS: I imagine you reached out to these sites. Did they respond to your inquiries? And if they did what they say?
PARKS: Yeah. So I've reached out to The Daily Wire. I was not able to get a hold of anybody for an interview. But in the subsequent few hours since my story published yesterday, The Daily Wire has been, you know, Ben Shapiro and people from The Daily Wire have been tweeting about it. They have been running a fundraiser on their site to try and drive subscriptions based off of our story.
They're kind of painting it as a hit piece. I would argue that our coverage here is kind of talking about how they've been able to use the Facebook algorithm to do exactly what they're trying to do. I don't know that the story necessarily is as negative as they're painting it, but they're kind of - it's in their best interest to be against the mainstream media. And so this is another instance of that's how they see it.
FOWLER: And, Sue, I did, in the course of reporting my story, reach out to the publisher of The Georgia Star. It's a man named John Fredericks who has a radio show and did an interview with him. And he was more than happy to talk. He said that The Georgia Star has a growing audience of people that want an outlet, that tells the truth, gets the facts and can, quote, "punch through the fake news networks." And he was very quick to point out that, thanks to a large number of Republican politicians and groups advertising on the site, they were very profitable.
JOHN FREDERICKS: And if somebody needs to reach informed, motivated readers that want the truth, advertising with us is a great opportunity for them. It's a great online moral life.
FOWLER: And, you know, I will say after the story published, I did get a call from John Fredericks, and he said that it was a great story. He was happy that we pointed out how profitable the site was, but he disagreed with every bit of analysis about whether his site was pushing misinformation or not.
DAVIS: All right. Let's take a quick break, and we'll talk more about this when we get back.
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DAVIS: And we're back. And obviously, the impact of this kind of new era of media is affecting our politics. It's affecting our culture. It's affecting polarization. I know you all talked to some experts in the field about this, and I wonder what they say, what they think the impact of this is.
PARKS: Well, I talked to a professor of rhetoric at the University of North Georgia about some of this, and he says that a lot of these sites use certain language that is really adept at hitting certain policy points and terminologies that really confirm people's prior beliefs about issues. And so this kind of creates a feedback loop where, if you read these sites and if you engage with this kind of media, you're not necessarily learning new information about different topics and issues, but rather having your preexisting feelings confirmed, and that it's a tricky situation for the media and fact checkers and others to get into because it's so hard to try to convince somebody that what you're saying is true.
You know, the folks I talked to said very similar things about preconceived biases and people wanting to consume information that goes along with those biases. But they also talked about kind of the changing information habits of conservatives in this country and how a site like The Daily Wire and also The Georgia Star fit in to the fact that, over the last 20 years, conservatives have become more and more distrusting of mainstream news sources.
And so that kind of opens up the door for these less-established websites that maybe don't have the same reporting resources or same traditional credibility, they can siphon off an audience because a lot of conservatives in America are just looking for different news sources. The other thing that I think is interesting is how much this ties into the lack of local news sources in this country right now, right?
DAVIS: Yeah. I was going to ask you about that.
PARKS: Yeah. And so over the last 20 years, we've seen all these reports about the local news industry shrinking. That's another aspect of this that people - I talked to Monica Stephens, who's a social media expert at the University of Buffalo. And what she told me was basically people have been shifting to getting information tailored to their ideology, whereas previously a lot of people - a lot more people were getting information tailored to where they live, their geography.
MONICA STEPHENS: So you're more likely to read the same news with somebody who lives a thousand miles away from you but holds the same perspective than share news and share information with your next-door neighbor.
FOWLER: And, you know, Miles, as somebody who is in the local media sphere here in Georgia, there are things coming in faster than I can handle. It's kind of like that scene from "I Love Lucy," where all the chocolates are coming down the conveyor belt. And while that's happening, you're getting hit with a fire hose of other news and things to cover.
And, you know, it's really hard to regain that trust of people. And it takes a lot of time to track down stories and to call people for interviews and to fact-check claims that are being made. And by the time you do that, there are six or seven more blogs or stories that come out from sites like The Georgia Star or The Daily Wire that make it even harder to break through with what the real story is.
DAVIS: It also seems really tricky because, you know, we're journalists. We're protected by the First Amendment, the freedom of the press. And, you know, whether people like it or not, I think these news sites are also considered journalism and journalists. And they often have the same First Amendment rights that we have. And that's probably a good thing, right? You know, I'm willing to put myself out there in the camp of pro-First Amendment people as a journalist. But I wonder if, Miles, you know, how does the platform respond to things like this? How does Facebook respond to being the vehicle by which sources like the Daily Wire are able to sort of engage with their audiences?
PARKS: So we know that polarizing information does really well on Facebook, but we don't know a whole lot more than that. And so when you talk to experts who focus on social media, the biggest thing is that this is kind of still a black box. You know, our analysis focuses on this engagement data, these likes, shares and comments on Facebook because there isn't other information we aren't able to see, OK, how many people did this story reach or what percentage of the Facebook audience in Georgia is reading or is touched by content from The Georgia Star? And so I think it goes back to a transparency thing more than - it's really hard to make conclusions about what's going on on the platforms because we journalists and the public generally just don't have a great understanding at a macro level of what's happening.
DAVIS: All right. I think we're going to leave it there for today. Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting, as always, thanks so much for coming on the pod.
FOWLER: Thank you.
DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting and misinformation.
DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
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