Political bias is not new to journalism, either in the United States or anywhere else in the world. But check out how NPR discusses the conservative outlet The Daily Wire and pundit Ben Shapiro. It's a case study in people's eagerness to classify writing they disagree with as "misinformation," whether or not it's factually accurate.
The hit piece begins by pointing out how well The Daily Wire does in Facebook engagement compared to more mainstream media outlets, such as The New York Times and the Washington Post. This is a useful corrective to those who think left-wing "Big Tech" companies have scrubbed away the conservative presence online. But that's not the point of Miles Parks' analysis. His point is that The Daily Wire's success on in Facebook is a bad thing because the outlet is using "outrage as a business model."
Needless to say, many media outlets do that. It's not even new to the age of social media. Before we had outrage clicks we had gossip columns and "If it bleeds, it leads."
But The Daily Wire is different, you see. Because of the site's political leanings, it is framing stories in a certain way to appeal to conservative opinion. NPR doesn't accuse The Daily Wire of publishing false news. But the expert Parks interviews—Jaime Settle, director of the Social Networks and Political Psychology Lab at the College of William & Mary—sees the historically common political reframing of the stories of the day as a big problem:
"They tend to not provide very much context for the information that they are providing," Settle said. "If you've stripped enough context away, any piece of truth can become a piece of misinformation."
This story provides a useful example of this phenomenon, though probably not the one Parks intends. The entire piece hinges on "Facebook engagement" data, which is just one of many measures of a story's impact; hilariously, it doesn't even indicate whether the piece was even read. It's a measure not just of who clicked a link, but who liked, shared, or commented on a Facebook post. That a Daily Wire post gets more Facebook engagement than a New York Times report does not mean more people actually read the Daily Wire post.
The story appears right as the White House is calling for broad coordination between social media platforms to ban users that the government deems to be sources of vaccine misinformation. We've already seen where that approach leads. The U.S. government is not the final arbiter of what COVID-19 claims are accurate. We've already seen platforms, at government urging, classify theories that the virus may have leaked from a Chinese laboratory as misinformation and censor them. But it wasn't "misinformation." It was a theory that may well turn out to be accurate.
There is plenty of genuine misinformation out there about COVID-19, but at this point the federal government has, for many Americans, blown the handling of this epidemic with fear-driven responses not backed up by science. As a result, large swathes of people are going to be suspicious about any White House statements about misinformation.
Stories like this NPR report perpetuate the divide. Parks says The Daily Wire's stories "don't normally include falsehoods," but then lets Settle (who has a book to sell blaming social media for political polarization) say that sometimes the truth can "become a piece of misinformation."
Parks does not go so far as to suggest that anybody in a position of power should do anything about The Daily Wire's success. But he does give Judd Legum, former Democratic campaigner and founder of the progressive website ThinkProgress, plenty of space to critique The Daily Wire's methods, which is a weird way of undermining his entire piece. A well-known progressive Democratic media analyst is concerned about a conservative media outlet's behavior? The polarization is coming from inside the house, Parks!