Just as change is coming at the White House, a fresh wind appears to be blowing through the established rightwing media system, with a collage of TV stations and social media networks seeking to attract the ardent, dissatisfied Donald Trump supporters.
For years Fox News has dominated the conservative landscape. The network has spent four years fawning over Trump, and promoting sometimes spurious stories about his rivals over the past four years.
But for Trump, even that has not been enough. Largely because of the president, Fox News now has competitors, in the form of One America News and Newsmax. The two relatively new channels have seen their viewership soar in recent months.
Both OAN and Newsmax are more rightwing than Fox News – quite a feat – and each has pushed zany conspiracy theories, including that there was a deep state or Democrat-led plot to infect Trump with coronavirus, and that Anthony Fauci, the head of the NIAID, funded the creation of the coronavirus.
In December, Newsmax overtook Fox News in the ratings – very briefly, and in a very specific time slot – for the first time.
Among the 25-54-year-old demographic, Newsmax’s flagship show, hosted by Greg Kelly, reeled in 229,000 viewers, compared to Fox News’ Martha MacCallum’s 203,000.
That may be a narrow comparison, but it’s true that Newsmax’s viewership more generally has surged in recent months. Over the summer, Newsmax was recording about 25,000 viewers a day, according to CNN’s Brian Stelter. In election week, that jumped up to 182,000 viewers.
Still, the channel has experienced a real surge since the election, after Fox News came under fire, and Newsmax’s nightly shows have drawn 700-800,000 viewers, according to Nielsen. Republicans’ perception of Fox News has shifted too: since the election, Fox News’ favorability among GOP supporters has dropped from 67% to 54%.
The rise has been fueled by Donald Trump’s frequent turns on Fox News. It’s hard to tell how serious Trump’s turn on the network is. He has criticized Fox, but repeatedly plugs segments – segments favoring him – on Twitter, mostly clips from Sean Hannity’s show, or Tucker Carlson.
Still, the outgoing president has frequently railed against other parts of Fox News’ programs, particularly the network’s daytime programming which tends to focus on straighter news rather than rightwing opinion.
He has specifically suggested people should watch Newsmax and OAN instead, particularly after Fox News called the election for Biden – and after at least some of the hosts on Fox News refused to indulge Trump’s desperate quest to overturn the election results.
“It does seem to be as a result of those election calls,” said Matthew Gertz, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media watchdog group.
“That has spurred a bit of a revolt, and Trump has egged that on by telling his Twitter followers that they should be watching OAN and Newsmax instead of Fox particularly during those ‘news hours’.”
Gertz said that Trump himself seems to have shifted his viewing habits.
“He watches hours and hours of cable news every day. Typically it’s been Fox News, but more than I’ve ever seen before over the last few weeks, he’s been watching and responding to OAN and Newsmax coverage as well.”
In the looming post-Trump world – or at least the post-Trump-as-president-world – Fox News appears to have responded. The already rightwing network has shunted its coverage even further to the right in an attempt to thwart its upstart rivals, a new change in the rightwing media ecosystem.
Gertz said in mid-November Fox News began a new tactic: running clips from right-wing hosts such as Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity during its ‘straighter’ daytime shows, and sometimes asking guests to respond to what Carlson or Hannity might have espoused.
“That struck me as an attempt to win back audience during the ‘news hours’, when there’s somewhat less conservative red-meat than the primetime hours, by giving [viewers] more of that from the familiar faces of Fox’s biggest rightwing stars.
“That, I think, was an attempt to respond to the audience that was considering or already sometimes moving over to some of its competitors.”
Where Trump goes, many of his supporters follow, and that has accelerated the growth of OAN and Newsmax, in particular. The Newsmax app rose from 4,000 downloads a day in late October to 230,000 in the days following the election. One Zero reported that downloads of the app have dropped, by a lot, since then, to 32,000 a day, but that still represents a huge spike compared to the pre-election days.
A spokeswoman for Fox News declined to comment, but pointed to Nielsen ratings that showed Newsmax and OAN had experienced a decline in viewers since the highs they saw in the days following the election. According to Nielsen, Fox News daytime viewers also declined.
But whether it’s Newsmax or OAN, the spread of more extreme news sources has been happening for quite some time.
“It hasn’t started this year, it’s gone on for a decade or more,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor at American university’s school of public affairs. The expansion and proliferation of extreme, hyper-partisan sites purporting to be news, Miller-Idriss said “is really dangerous in terms of media literacy and democracy”.
“Now you just got dozens and dozens and dozens of potential news sources many of which have tremendous bias,” she said.
Rise of rightwing social media
Away from the emerging cable news channels, another rightwing source has been garnering attention – and numbers: Parler, a conservative ‘alternative’ to Twitter and Facebook. Founded by John Matze and Jared Thomson, it was funded by Rebekah Mercer, dubbed the “first lady of the alt-right” by no less than Newsmax’s CEO Chris Ruddy.
In the week following the election, Parler grew from 4.5 million user accounts to 9 million users, chief operating officer Jeffrey Wernick told the Washington Post.
“There’s been this flurry of people joining,” Miller-Idriss said.
“It has real potential – I think nobody knows exactly whether that’s sticking potential. Do people get there and then get frustrated with it, do they decide not to stay?”
There certainly isn’t much diversity of opinion on Parler, where almost all of the accounts belong to right-wingers.
Ted Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas, has one of the most followed Parler accounts, with 4.8 million adherents as of mid-December.
Proud Boys, the extremist rightwing group, has a popular account, and one of the most active of the well-known Parler users is Laura Loomer, an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist who was a Republican candidate for the US House of Representatives in November. (Loomer lost by 20 points.)
Loomer has been banned from Twitter and Facebook for spreading hate speech, while Twitter has also restricted accounts associated with Proud Boys for violating its policy on “violent extremist groups”, but they have found a home on Parler.
“The things I worry about with Parler are if people are leaving other platforms where there might be a broader range of ideological views, or a broader range of arguments that they hear, and they land in more of an echo-chamber where they are less exposed to contradictory beliefs to their own,” Miller-Idriss said.
“The more time you spend with like-minded people, research shows the more likely you are to migrate to more extreme versions of your own beliefs.”
A key motivator for right-wingers to spend time on Twitter seems to be to tussle or antagonize people with different political or social beliefs. In the most part that doesn’t exist on Parler. There are also signs that the platform’s growth is slowing. Parler saw some 300,000 downloads a day in mid-November, according to One Zero, and that number dropped to about 40,000 by mid-December.
Whether the preaching-to-the-converted nature of Parler eventually turns people off depends on “what are your motivating factors, why are you here, what makes this site the place that you go to”, said Renee DiResta, technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory.
“If your primary reason for engaging on social media in a political sphere is to fight with people who are different, to fight with people who are on the other side or troll them, or drop memes that you think are going to trigger them, then you’re not going to be able to do that on Parler.”
There have been other rightwing platforms that have had rises in popularity, only to fade away.
Gab and MeWe exist in the same sphere as Parler, but have never gained a mainstream rightwing following. It is unclear whether Parler’s popularity will last.
“There’s always these apps and social networks that come out of nowhere and they have a spike and then they usually dip back down,” DiResta said.
Away from TV and social media, other traditional players are seeing falling numbers. Drudge Report, the influential conservative news aggregator, has seen its visitors drop since it began distancing itself from Trump in 2019.
As its readers have fallen, new players have emerged. Whatfinger, a similar site to Drudge, but loyal to Trump, increased its traffic by 40.8% through 2019, to 3.2 million readers a month, according to the similarly rightwing Washington Times.
It remains to be seen how many of the more traditional Republicans, as opposed to the ardent Trump-followers, are willing to abandon their less-mainstream sources.
In 2019, 22% of Americans said they use Twitter, and 68% use Facebook, dwarfing Parler’s usage. Fox News has consistently been the most-watched cable news channel in the US.
The newcomers have a big hill to climb to overcome the established order. Time will tell if they can.