In late October 2020, The New York Times released an investigatory story centred around Brian Timpone. You probably haven’t heard his name before, but if you live in the US, you have most likely seen a story created by his tentacular news presence. Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism reported a shadowy connection between 450 supposed local news sites in December 2019, and in the run-up to last year’s presidential election, this intricate network tripled. Using publicly available data sets and taking bits from legitimate sources, over 90 per cent of the stories on the over 1,200 “local” sites were proved to be algorithmically generated. Similar to the questionable meat additive underpinning American fast food, these content mills have been considered to be the pink slime of the news industry.
Brian Timpone is the CEO of various news platforms, the most prominent being Metric Media. Much like the empty posturing of a fast-fashion graphic tee passively telling someone to vote, its company’s homepage made of gentle green and white hues vaguely states that it’s “giving a voice to every citizen.” Beneath this, the company loosely encourages readers to “pitch stories, read about your friends and neighbours, or follow your favourite issues.” By framing its opening statement in the language of freelancing, it appears harmless—similar to many other gig economy jobs within journalism.
According to The New York Times, about 25 per cent of local news sources in the US have gone under since 2004. A peer of mine from my home state of New Hampshire, Ian Lenahan, works as a reporter for Seacoast Media Group, one of our town’s long-standing local news sources. As a recent graduate, he noted that his position is “a definite outlier from those within my college cohort,” many of whom—“about 60 per cent,” he states—are working in “mill-type” jobs.
Many professional freelancers or recent graduates find financial stability in employers like Metric Media, which fewer local news companies are able to offer. However, Lenahan suggests that individuals such as Timpone play into “perception and division by masking voices as truth-seekers while aiming to discredit others and further sow division within the public sphere.” This decline of legitimate regional news sources has allowed for the bottom feeders of capitalism to piece together remaining scraps into something resembling what we once knew.
Metric Media provides a service through which anonymous parties can pay for articles to appear on local news sites. Tax records and campaign-finance reports revealed that the network received a minimum of $1.7 million from Republican campaigns and other conservative groups. Although the company repeatedly mentions that its “approach is to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias,” this partisan leaning says otherwise.
A freelance journalist interviewed by The New York Times who unknowingly worked for a branch of Timpone’s tangled media empire noted that “assignments typically come with precise instructions on whom to interview and what to write,” and that “in some cases, those instructions are written by the network’s clients, who are sometimes the subjects of the articles.” While there are liberal equivalents to these partisan content papers, Timpone’s vast network is set apart due to its size, which now is double that of Gannett, America’s largest newspaper chain.
Under each of Metric Media’s websites’ ‘About’ section, it’s stated that it “was established to fill the void in community news after years of decline in local reporting by legacy media. This site is one of hundreds nationwide to inform citizens about news in their local communities.” Despite this embedded emphasis on the local and its restoration, Metric Media is the perfect antithesis to this. The pay-to-play business model hidden behind its ambiguous content creation eschews the traditional tenets of truth behind journalism by directly tying the viewpoints of the article to those funding them.
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—similar to when your favourite influencer has to include #ad in their Instagram captions—it’s a requirement for articles to note if and who they’re advertised by. However, most of these sites fail to provide an author’s name, and, for some, it takes many new tabs to trace it back to its source and umbrella company.
Despite running on an ardent, infamous “Make America Great Again” platform, Trump’s four years brought little change to the small towns which passionately supported him. After his win in November 2016, the then President-elect took to YouTube to announce his plans for his first 100 days in office. Here, he outlined that he would “bring back our jobs.” Like most of his statements, this was baseless hot air, causing the swamp to boil rather than drain.
Even without considering the detrimental economic effects of COVID-19, since 1997, the US has a net loss of over 91,000 manufacturing plants and 5 million jobs associated with them. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), during the Trump administration, almost 1,800 factories disappeared between 2016 and 2018. Rural areas such as the regions where these local news sites are most prevalent in replacing legitimate media sources have been hit the hardest by evaporating industries that are shipped offshores to lower production costs. Due to these factors, distrust continues to grow as local economies deteriorate, thus bolstering the rise of these questionable news outlets as citizens attempt to place their hope in something outside the national systems which have failed them.
In this era of disinformation, it’s worth repeating that it’s more crucial than ever to understand where news is coming from. However, with an increasingly heavy onus placed on the consumer to sort through layers of advertising sludge and opaque funding, large-scale intervention on small-scale news is necessary. The Biden administration has the gargantuan task of making America (somewhat) normal again, but have parts of it fallen too deep into the digital rabbit hole to recover? Keeping the local actually local will be one step towards accomplishing this distant goal.
As 2020 continues to throw curveballs, at many points the expression ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’ has seemed apt. With this, we have seen a rise of political content on social media to help the general public make sense of major global crisis after major global crisis. Internet memes make a joke, a point, or a connection and can operate to affirm and shape today’s politics through participation by reappropriation. But are they actually helpful?
As the best part of any group chat, memes are fundamentally fun. However, when used within a political context they enable a new kind of participatory conversation which complicates the traditional political structure. Internet memes are defined as “units of popular culture that are circulated, imitated and transformed by Internet users, creating a shared cultural experience.” For young people, who do a great deal of their communicating online, memes have become a significant practice for political engagement. A far cry from the cat memes of 2010, 2020 sees the internet taking on politicians and the established elite through the medium of memes.
Humour is inherently critical and functions to challenge social norms dating all the way back to Ancient Greece. In a way, memes are a continuation of caricatures, which were popularised in the 1700s as a form of satire. Political memes create and spread satire, allowing them to actively question politics rather than passively consume through more traditional news sources. Logan Callen, creator of the Instagram account @quarantined_political_memes, which is well known for its political compass memes, told Screen Shot, “When I first started my page back in March, the amount of engagement on political pages was much lower than it is now. My page has grown a lot recently, especially among younger people. I attribute this growing interest in politics to the popularisation of politics on social media.”
With few socioeconomic barriers to the internet, access to political content has never been easier, arming the younger generation with a powerful tool. However, the meme’s biggest strengths, speed and lack of gatekeepers can also prove its biggest flaws.
At their crux, memes are supposed to be funny, whether that humour is light-hearted or macabre. However, at the intersection of politics and humour, there is a very fine line to be balanced. Bigoted hostility, harassment and dangerous propaganda are often overlooked as ‘just a joke’, as extremists hide behind irony to make their bigotry seem more palatable. A 2015 study by the Texas University found that individuals who were socially isolated and more likely to be characterised as ‘on the fringe’ have a greater chance at creating a successful meme, lending weight to the idea of memes being an effective tool for extremists.
“Social media giving everyone a voice for their opinions is a double-edged sword,” explains Callen. “While it allows for every opinion to be heard, it also grants the opportunity for ‘trolls’ to spread misinformation. I have seen this a lot while on the political side of Instagram. While most memes I have come across aren’t dangerous in spreading misinformation or propaganda, I have seen a few that almost tricked me, and would definitely trick younger people.”
Memes thrive on a lack of information, the faster you can understand the point the higher the chance of it going viral. Seemingly well-intentioned memes can still dehumanise others through fetishisation, as when everything is reduced to an Instagram graphic it’s easy to forget the very real human experiences behind the content. One particularly disturbing example is the recent murder of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police. An article in Vox stated that “as soon as Taylor’s name went viral, the call to action became something closer to a meme-fied catchphrase, with many social media users turning calls to arrest Taylor’s killers into a kind of structural gimmick.”
The tools we use to communicate are in danger of becoming counterproductive to actual communication. The term ‘slacktivism’ describes the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media, involving very little effort or with the main purpose of boosting the participant’s ego.
And then there’s the concern that memes can very easily become our own personal echo chambers. Tatton Spiller, creator of the Instagram account @SimplePolitics and author of The Breakdown, explains, “The echo chamber effect is pretty awful. You follow people with whom you agree. You share those posts. You don’t interact with friends you follow but don’t share values with, they drop off your timeline, you see more of the stuff with which you do agree. You hear nothing, ever, of the other side. You forget that people with other views really exist. How can anyone believe that nonsense? You completely lose the ability to chat or engage with anyone who doesn’t hold your points of view.”
Memes aren’t going anywhere. They are a part of public conversation and shape the way we interact with events and debates. Even deepfake memes are on the rise. Activist and author of Millennial Black and Anti-Racist Ally, Sophie Williams, tells Screen Shot, “I think people spend so much time on social media, consciously and unconsciously absorbing the information they see, that it can be a really good starting point for people. What I think is essential to emphasise every time, is that posting or sharing on social media is not activism in itself. It’s not the end, it’s just the start. People have to take the information and apply it in their everyday lives, offline, through their actions.”
Social media is a powerful tool. It’s hard to imagine a major pop cultural or political moment that doesn’t generate an influx of internet memes. But with that comes a breeding ground for lies, indifference and optical allyship. Proceed with caution.