The New Media Goliaths

 

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 RENÉE DIRESTA

One of the more remarkable artifacts of late-stage social media is the indelible presence of a particular character: the persecution profiteer. They are nearly unavoidable on Twitter: massive accounts with hundreds of thousands to millions of followers, beloved by the recommendation engine and often heavily monetized across multiple platforms, where they rail against the corporate media, Big Tech and elites. Sometimes, the elites have supposedly silenced them; sometimes, they’ve supposedly oppressed you — perhaps both. But either way, manipulation is supposedly everywhere, and they are supposedly getting to the bottom of it. 

Many of these polemicists rely on a thinly veiled subtext: They are scrappy truth-tellers, citizen-journalist Davids, exposing the propaganda machine of the Goliaths. That subtext may have been true in last century’s media landscape, when independent media fought for audience scraps left by hardy media behemoths with unassailable gatekeeping power. But that all changed with the collapse of mass media’s revenue model and the rise of a new elite: the media-of-one. 

The transition was enabled by tech but realized by entrepreneurs. Platforms like Substack, Patreon and OnlyFans offered infrastructure and monetization services to a galaxy of independent creators — writers, podcasters and artists — while taking a cut of their revenue. Many of these creators adopted the mantle of media through self-declaration and branding, redefining the term and the industry. Many were very talented. More importantly, however, they understood that creating content for a niche — connecting with a very specific online audience segment — offered a path to attention, revenue and clout. In the context of political content in particular, the media-of-one creators offered their readers an editorial page, staffed with one voice and absent the rest of the newspaper. 

The rise of a profitable niche media ecosystem with a reach commensurate with mass media has been a boon for creators and consumers alike. YouTube, Instagram and TikTok have enabled sponsorships and ad-revenue sharing for quite some time — spawning a generation of influencers — but patronage opened additional paths to success. A tech blogger can start a podcast about Web3 with no infrastructural outlay, reaching their audience in a new medium. A Substack newsletter devoted to political history can amass thousands of subscribers, charge $5 a month, and deliver a salary up to seven figures for its author. Pop culture pundits can earn a living producing content on Patreon, and web-cam adult performers can do the same on OnlyFans. Even Twitter has launched subscriptions.

Whatever the kink — from nudes to recipes to conspiracy theories — consumers can find their niche, sponsor it and share its output. This ecosystem has given rise to people with millions of followers, who shape the culture and determine what the public talks about each day.  

Well, their public, anyway. 

The Rise Of Niche Propaganda

Like the media, the public has increasingly fragmented. The internet enabled the flourishing of a plethora of online subcultures and communities: an archipelago of bespoke and targetable realities. Some of the most visible are defined by their declining trust in mass media and institutions. Recognizing the opportunity, a proliferation of media-of-one outlets have spun up to serve them.

In fact, the intersection of a burgeoning niche media ecosystem and a factionalized public has transformed precisely the type of content that so concerns the persecution profiteers: propaganda. Propaganda is information with an agenda, delivered to susceptible audiences to serve the objectives of the creator. Anyone so inclined can set up an account and target an audience, producing spin to fit a preferred ideological agenda. Those who achieve a degree of success are often increasingly cozy with politicians and billionaire elites who hold the levers of power and help advance shared agendas. In fact, the niche propagandists increasingly have an advantage over the Goliaths they rail against. They innately understand the modern communication ecosystem on which narratives travel and know how to leverage highly participatory, activist social media fandoms to distribute their messages; institutions and legacy media typically do not. 

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