Bad news travels fast: the co-optation of mainstream media to promote radical and extremist ideologies online

By Dr Melissa-Ellen Dowling

Note: This blog post is a modified version of the article: Melissa-Ellen Dowling (2024) News to me: far-right news sharing on social media, Information, Communication & Society, 27:1, 39-55. To learn more about this research, please see the original study, available at: DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2023.2166796.

How are extremist political ideologies communicated online? What enables political claims to gain traction with and convince audiences of their veracity? These are questions that governments and researchers alike continue to grapple with. We know, for example that convincing rhetoric might variously deploy speech devices, such as appeals to supernatural authority, experiences, and historical lessons. Yet online forums permit another device that advocates of ideologies often use: selective ‘editorialised’ sharing of mainstream news content within insular online communities.

News Sharing on Social Media

‘News sharing’ describes the practice of online social media users posting news media sourced from elsewhere. It usually involves providing access to news content to the user/sharer’s online friends, followers, or subscribers. For example, a social media user might share a BBC article on their Telegram channel, or perhaps watch a CNN news clip and repost it via a link on Gab. Sharing news online is a common practice, taking place across all demographics, platforms, and political ideologies.

There are diverse motivations for news sharing, but people typically share news content to inform, influence, entertain, vent, or spark conversation. For many, news sharing is a way to enhance one’s sense of belonging. In fact, researchers Andrew Chadwick and Cristian Vaccari found that 29.6% of respondents in their study shared news primarily for that purpose. Other investigations reveal that news sharing is driven by users’ desire to promote ‘group cohesion’. This aligns with sociological theories that cast fringe political communities as groups in pursuit of cultivating shared identities.

News Sharing to Communicate Far-Right Ideas

While the online space is a powerful tool for those seeking to spread any type of political ideology, the internet has become a particularly commanding vector for the transmission of far-right ideas. The online space can introduce people to far-right ideas, increase exposure to them, and normalise them through ideological learning. Although far-right users are known for criticising mainstream media, as Mario Peucker and Thomas Fischer point out, such users nevertheless utilise mainstream news for mobilisation purposes.

The News Sharing Legitimisation Circuit

Sharing certain types of mainstream news media in particular online contexts can generate what I conceptualise as a cycle of legitimising and entrenching ideologies that are harmful to liberal democracy: the “news sharing legitimisation circuit”.

Figure 1: News Sharing Legitimisation Circuit

In my research on news sharing in far-right communities, it became apparent that certain types of mainstream news content tended to be shared by users participating in far-right digital communities. The most frequently shared media pertained to topics such as immigration, multiculturalism, the economy, public health, and crime. What counts as ‘mainstream’ news is, of course, somewhat debatable. However, mainstream news sources are typically those which are widely consumed. For example, the BBC, ABC, CNN, Reuters, and Al-Jazeera.

The selective sharing of mainstream news items begins (and continues!) the legitimisation circuit by presenting only news that aligns with the worldview of the ‘news sharer’. For example, I observed posts in Australia-focused forums that shared mainstream news stories of crime allegedly perpetrated by those of African ethnicity, but no posts about ‘white crime’, accompanied by commentary on the risks of immigration. This selective sharing of news provides an opportunity for users to vocalise discriminatory opinions and/or present covert racism as ‘factual’. The news is, after all, ostensibly a neutral representation of what has ‘factually’ transpired. And, mainstream news comes from an established source with widespread credibility.

Yet, sharers of news in this context will still often frame news items with ideological nuances, sharing the news items with their own commentary to create an interpretation of the news consistent with their ideological perspective. This generates evidence to support the validity of far-right perspectives and grievances (usually against non-white peoples, immigrants, or political elites), and legitimises far-right ideologies through a construction of ‘reality’ that renders far-right views natural and immutable. In short, it creates an ‘illiberal mosaic of belief’: a conglomeration of values and beliefs that can become enmeshed into radical and extremist worldviews. This style of news sharing therefore has the potential to lead to mainstreaming of ideologies – not only far-right ideologies, but any political ideologies that run counter to inclusive, liberal democratic values.

Melissa-Ellen Dowling is a Senior Lecturer in political sociology at Flinders University, Australia.

Want to submit a blog post? Click here.