The Fear-Hate-Anger Click Machine

Mother Jones

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We’re at that point in the election cycle where everyone is in full-on hate-the-media mode—and not without reason. From Matt Lauer’s bizarrely imbalanced questioning of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, to Trump consultant Corey Lewandowski’s access to endless free airtime as a paid CNN analyst, to the false equivalency debate over the Clinton and Trump foundations, there’s plenty to get mad about.

So far, so familiar. People get mad about the media during every presidential campaign (and most of the time in between, too). But this year, there’s something more deeply problematic going on, and it’s rooted in the economics of online media. That’s something journalists—and people who read journalism—need to grapple with, because we’re all participants in the toxic feedback mechanism involved.

A good way to understand this mechanism is via the three words most often used to characterize what Donald Trump expresses, and feeds: Fear, hate, and anger.

Fear. Hate. Anger. Most pols appeal to these emotions in some way, but Trump doesn’t just appeal. He embodies, draws out, expertly modulates. Like a three-chord song, his campaign is an endless rearrangement of this basic vocabulary. Fear plus hate. Hate plus anger. Anger squared. Fear with an undertone of hate.

Why does this work so well? Part of the answer has become painfully obvious: It resonates with cultural bass notes that are stronger than many people believed. Racial resentment, economic anxiety, social dislocation. You can argue which one plays the biggest role, or whether all three reinforce and build on each other.

But there’s a fourth factor, and this is where journalists need to look in the mirror: A growing part of this profession, our profession, is also coming to depend on fear, anger, and hate.

Here’s why. There are, give or take, 40 percent fewer journalists employed in America than there were 15 years ago. And those journalists are working to fill not just a finite number of pages or hours of airtime. They are feeding the boundless appetite of the internet, cranking out post after post in search of advertising revenue. As advertising is becoming cheaper, and Google and Facebook are sucking up those dollars instead of publishers, a diminishing number of journalists have to push ever harder, against ever tougher competition, to draw eyeballs.

What do you do in that situation? You reach for what works—and fear, hate, and anger work incredibly well. Publish something that appeals to any of the three and it’s instant gratification: People will click on that headline, share that post. So you do it again, and you try to learn how to do it more effectively. It’s a pretty straight-up Pavlovian mechanism, and there’s no one seeking an audience on the internet—ourselves included—who has not felt its pull.

And the wheel keeps spinning faster. The more something pushes the fear-hate-anger buttons, the more likely it will turn out to be false or oversimplified. But the pressure is on to publish first and fact-check later, and the fact-check never gets as much attention (or as many shares) as the original outrageous bit. Plus outrage-stoking works best among people who already agree with each other, and thanks to the social-media algorithms, we don’t often see the people who disagree with us, so we close ourselves ever more tightly within our own bubbles. It’s the reign of the rage-share.

Trump, in a way, is the most powerful expression of this feedback loop. He understands it in the fine-grained, intimate way of someone who’s been tweeting a dozen times a day for seven years. He recognizes that fear, anger, and hate work whether you express them, elicit them in response, or both. He knows a lie gets around the world in the time a fact-checker is getting her boots on. He is, as some people have said, a comments section become flesh.

This is terrible for journalism, and for democracy. We need alternatives—and here at MoJo, that’s something we’ve been thinking about a lot.

As you know, we’re lucky enough not to have to grab traffic at any cost because advertising isn’t our primary source of revenue (though the 15 percent it contributes to our budget helps a lot). Instead, as you also know, what keeps us going is support from our readers, who provide 70 percent of our revenue in the form of subscriptions and donations.

But here we run into another way that the fear-hate-anger machine exerts its maleficent pull: Like other nonprofits, we have to make the case for support to our audience, and right now we’re in the closing days of a big fundraising campaign. Conventional wisdom holds that to get to our goal, we should push exactly those buttons. Fear :bad things will happen if we don’t meet our budget! (This of course is true—but panic mode doesn’t exactly appeal to your intelligence.) Hate: Look at the bad guy du jour (or even the evil mainstream media!). Anger: People are so misinformed, can you believe what fill-in-the-blank said?! (Also true—but the real point is, how do we fix that?)

We’re betting there’s a better way. We believe that conventional wisdom is wrong, that journalism doesn’t have to depend on the fear-hate-anger machine. And over the last few months at MoJo, we’ve launched an experiment to prove it. We’ve staked our future on gaining your support with transparent, reality-based arguments: diving into the challenges that investigative reporting faces, and the threat to democracy when billionaires try to silence journalists. We want to appeal to your frontal cortex, not your brain stem. And while it’s still early days, we’ve been inspired by the results.

A couple of months ago, when we published Shane Bauer’s investigation about working as a guard in a private prison, nearly 1.5 million people read it. And then they put the information to use. Some told us they were contacting their elected representatives and government officials. Some were government officials: We heard from the Department of Justice, which a few weeks after our investigation announced it was no longer going to do business with private prisons.

And perhaps most amazingly, these readers thought about their part in making journalism like this happen. Even though we didn’t plaster the story with fundraising appeals, a record number of people chose to donate to MoJo or subscribe to our magazine after reading it.

The support has kept coming. About a month ago, we launched our first-ever push to sign up monthly donors here on the site. Our goal is to raise $30,000 in new monthly donations from sustainers by September 30. That would give us more stability to focus on truly revelatory reporting, and to create a model for quality journalism that is supported by the users—voluntarily, without a paywall or even a tote bag.

So far, it’s working. We’re right around $22,000 raised in monthly gifts from nearly 1,900 readers, and we’ve gotten there without the sensationalism or panic that fuel so many fundraising drives. We’ve learned there is a big, powerful audience that wants to buck conventional wisdom.

That audience—you!—can build the alternative to the click machine. You can invest in facts and transparency. You can expose that which hides in the shadows (like the Trump campaign’s refusal to disavow endorsements from every far-right, Nazi, and militia group out there.) And you can ensure that when politicians try to push voters’ buttons, journalists don’t just give them a platform, but challenge them with the truth.

So join us. Help us show that it’s possible to make in-depth reporting sustainable, especially with ongoing, sustaining support. We want to build a model that others in the media can follow. Let’s all get off the fear-hate-anger treadmill.

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The Fear-Hate-Anger Click Machine

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