The UK media landscape features a new source of political coverage. Grouped together under the umbrella term “alt-media”, this new genre of political media is largely (but not exclusively) left-leaning and is a possible response to a mainstream press that largely presents the opposite ideological standpoint.
Irrespective of their political alignment, The Canary, Guido Fawkes, The Skwawkbox, Another Angry Voice (AAV) and others are becoming increasingly influential. During the 2017 election campaign, for example, The Guardian ran with the headline: “DIY political websites: new force shaping the general election debate”. Elsewhere it was claimed that articles on The Canary were viewed 500,000 times, with one piece on AAV attracting 1.5m hits.
Their editors and journalists are also becoming part of mainstream political discourse. Ash Sarkar from Novara Media has appeared many times on Newsnight, Question Time and Good Morning Britain, while Tom Harwood from Guido Fawkes has become similarly prominent.
The alt-media’s relationship with the UK mainstream media is central to our research, which focuses on analysing how such sites go about their business – and to what effect. Our joint Cardiff/Swansea University project is currently analysing several years of alt-media content, before interviewing its journalists and audiences. We anticipate that our findings will be important for the sites themselves as well as for media regulators, not to mention the mainstream media that find themselves so regularly under scrutiny.
While these sites apparently revel in looking and sounding distinctively different from each other, they share a radical, partisan and uncompromising approach. Despite the fact that the motivation and stories behind their brands are unfamiliar to many, their eye-catchingly emphatic material is widely shared on social media. Many casual users of Twitter and Facebook, for example, may have read their content without realising where it originated.
Analysing their social media activity offers some important insight into the issues and interpretations that are gaining the most traction in the early stages of the campaign.
Figure 1 (below) shows the level of activity across eight alt-media sites on Twitter and Facebook during the opening part of the campaign (November 3-10, 2019). The dark blue columns isolate how often tweets have been favourited and the light blue columns indicate total Twitter interactions. The red columns isolate Facebook page likes and the pink columns show total Facebook interactions, incorporating shares, reactions and comments.
If judged by interaction volume, right-wing Guido Fawkes dominates the Twitterscape – but, when added together, Evolve Politics, AAV, Novara Media, Skwawkbox and the Canary are busier on behalf of the left. Together, their interactions reach a total of just over 146,000 versus 97,001 for Guido Fawkes.
On Facebook, this left-wing dominance is even more emphatic. AAV is by far the most successful in getting its content shared, with over 81,000 total shares in the first week of the campaign. As BuzzFeed’s then political commentator Jim Waterson observed in the 2017 election, “most mainstream news sites” would “kill” for such traffic.
No other alt-media sites come close to AAV in terms of Facebook interactions. But we found that fellow left-leaning sites The Canary and Evolve received far more traffic during the period than Conservative Woman, Breitbart and Guido Fawkes, which clearly prefer to spend time with their audience on Twitter.
Our examination of the most shared content on alt-media sites reveals predominately negative coverage. Figure 2 (below) captures the key sentiments displayed towards the main parties and the mainstream media across the top five most interacted with Tweets and Facebook posts for the four most active sites. In this small sample, alt-media sites and audiences appear to show a preference for content that undermines political opponents and the mainstream media.
Unsurprisingly, given the greater activity in and around the left-leaning sites, the Conservatives received most negative sentiments. However, mainstream media are both supported and attacked, depending on the circumstances. On November 6, for example, an AAV tweet proclaimed its “solidarity” for the oft-maligned Sky News presenter Kay Burley and to “anyone else who dares face down the Tory bullies”, when she “empty-chaired” the Conservative Party chairman James Cleverly during a live broadcast.
Unsurprising for an organisation which claims that criticising the BBC’s political coverage is the key “traffic driver” for its site, the next day on Twitter, Evolve called it “astounding” that the BBC featured an “ex-Labour nobody” to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn is unsuitable for high office, while ignoring the revelation by former Conservative chancellor Kenneth Clarke that he “can’t bring himself to vote Tory”. Indeed, Facebook negativity generally seems to gravitate towards the Conservatives and the mainstream media.
So in terms of the new alt-media’s social media activity, the early campaign is negative, combative and one that in terms of activity, at least, the left might be winning. Who knows whether that may turn out to be a microcosm of the wider picture?
Richard Thomas receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
Declan McDowell-Naylor receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)