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Ocasio-Cortez Exploited as Clickbait and Outrage Porn Magnet

by Patricia Roberts-Miller

Apr 2, 2019 | Media

Illustration by 
Edel Rodriguez

We are now at the point where, if a second assistant to a dog-catcher in south-south-east Nowhere says something negative about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, representative from New York, it’s news. And if a Democrat criticizes her, it’s going to be all over Facebook.

At any given moment, there are political figures saying critical things about other political figures. Yet if you watch Fox News, you’ll seldom hear conservative criticisms of the current most powerful GOP figure. Fox promotes the notion that there is a binary—people are either loyal to “conservatism” or they are “liberal.” The only opposition voices Fox allows are purportedly liberal, and they amount to little more than paid stooges who present dumb versions of “liberal” arguments, intended to persuade single-source viewers that they are getting both sides (and to default to their original prejudice).

Fox is all tribal loyalty, and its handling of AOC is further proof. It doesn’t surprise me that the network’s in full smear mode—it spent 25 years doing that to Hillary Rodham Clinton, quite effectively, and I doubt it can be persuaded to stop doing it until there’s no longer an audience that wants to shout at the TV.

The non-GOP media, however, is also handling AOC in ways that are actively harmful to democratic deliberation, and that’s something that we can change by not clicking or sharing outrage porn about AOC.

My objection to propaganda machines is that all of them (“left” and “right”) presume a binary of political options—you are either us or them. By design, the strategy is to make us argue about the identity of the people making the arguments, instead of arguing about the policies those people are advocating.

American media is demoralizing because it is profit-driven. There are three foolproof ways to get people to click on and share a link about politics (and thereby make a profit), and all of them involve avoiding policy argumentation:

• outrage porn, in which the participant takes pleasure in being outraged at the idiocy of “them” (some out-group);
• a cat fight (a fight between two women); and
• personalizing politics, so it’s never about policy, but about the identities of the people on the two sides (nonconservative sites generally accept the fallacy of presenting “both sides”).

Any one of these devices is more likely to get a click than something that offers a reasoned discussion of the various (nonbinary) options we, as a community, have available to us.

Effective deliberation doesn’t require that we ignore the identities and bodies of the people involved—those are important considerations. But neither should assumptions and projections about identity drive the debate. The identities of the people involved constitute one consideration among many and not, as the media would generally have it, the only thing we need to know.

So, as Orwell pointed out in his underappreciated Homage to Catalonia, a for-profit media and democratic deliberation are inherently at odds. Were the media oriented more toward enabling effective democratic deliberation, it would focus on candidates’ policy arguments, with consideration of their identity as indicative of whether they’re sincere or not. A media interested in generating profit won’t do anything resembling that. It will identify people who are so polarizing that any article about them generates clicks and then give them a lot of coverage: consider the disparity in coverage of Clinton and Trump in 2016.

Even supposedly “liberal” media doesn’t cover policy, instead indulging in fights between personalities. Think about how the nonconservative media covered the choice between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders—not through discussions of their relative policies but with articles about their personal conflicts. So, for instance, the very real, and very important, questions of their different policies were evaded in favor of unimportant questions about their feelings for each other. And there was a lot of outrage porn—we now know much of it generated by pro-Trump bots—instead of policy argumentation.

I think there were good reasons for supporting Sanders over Clinton and vice versa, but whether someone in either campaign said snarky things about the other wasn’t among them. And the notion of a stolen election is a nonstarter, in that it was (and is) rationally indefensible, but it was useful for fomenting hostility within groups that might vote against Trump.
Just to be clear: I’m saying that the important questions about policy were sidestepped by media in favor of clickbait articles about personal conflict. And it hurt the Democrats. And even the nonconservative sites engaged in it.

I think we’re seeing the same pattern in regard to AOC. Supposedly liberal sites post articles featuring something negative about her, with photos that make her look fanatical. It’s the stinkiest clickbait there is because:

• the controversy, even if entirely manufactured, will get clicks;
• any mention of AOC warms this outrage/attraction dynamic in people who drink deep in toxic masculinity and get excited about the possibility of dominating her;
• it’s politically useful for GOP rhetoric to create any kind of rift among people who might vote Democratic, a strategy that typically comes into play when some Democrat is being critical of another;
• potentially Democratic voters are prone to the narrative that the Democratic party is hostile to progressives. (It is, but I don’t think we should relish dwelling on it.)

Anything about AOC, of course, is good for generating outrage on the part of misogynists, but anything about any Democrat criticizing AOC is the perfect outrage porn. It’s money shots all the way.

For anti-“liberals,” there’s the opportunity for a good Two Minute Hate—they can revile AOC as the ultimate liberal (she isn’t), feel contempt for the Democrats who like her, and take pleasure in Dems tearing each other up. There’s also the porny pleasure people take in a cat fight—just as they do, as a friend pointed out, in the faux fight between Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle. And, of course, it’s an often cunning repeat of the strategy that worked so well in the summer of 2016—get potential Democratic voters to hate each other by fomenting (or even fabricating) a supposed fight between Democrats. We really need to learn from 2016. We don’t need to have pure unity, but we need to stop falling for the same devices.

I recently posted something about a profoundly irresponsible CNN article that was picked up by USA Today. The claim of the article was that a Democrat—Claire McCaskill, former senator from Missouri—had talked trash about AOC. But neither article had any quotes to support that representation of what McCaskill said, which made me think it was likely McCaskill hadn’t condemned AOC specifically or even the newly elected freshman class generally. Video of that interview showed that she didn’t say verbatim what either article claimed she had said—though she said other things that motivism and a hard spin could turn into a criticism of AOC.

Maybe that hard spin was an accurate inference of what McCaskill actually meant; maybe it wasn’t. But why go to all that trouble? Who cares? Why are we arguing about whether McCaskill was perhaps resentful following the loss of her Senate seat (or whether she’s a patronizing jerk), rather than about AOC’s policies?

It’s all clickbait, and it’s all distraction. And it’s all undermining democratic deliberation.

What matters is that both articles played into several different kinds of outrage. Democrat-haters would love the articles because it showed AOC (a potential powerhouse in the DNC) in a negative light and because it showed Democrats tearing each other up. Many lefties would take pleasure in it because it confirmed a narrative of Democratic politics being the worst thing ever—as suggested earlier, a narrative Russian bots used quite effectively in 2016.

It would also play to the intra-Democrat outrage wars of progressives v. centrists, which often turns into weird ageism—with snide and bigoted comments about millennials or old farts. All of those narratives are pleasurable, and they’re all about the identities of some other group being essentially evil. That’s fun. And they’re all damaging ways to think about politics.

AOC is a politician with important policies, which can and should be debated. What shouldn’t be debated is whether she is uppity, divisive, or a pretty good dancer. Let’s not argue about whether other Democrats have criticized her or how other politicians feel about her.

AOC has ideas to offer; let’s argue about them.

Patricia Roberts-Miller is a professor of rhetoric and writing and director of the University Writing Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Her most recent book is Demagoguery and Democracy (The Experiment, 2017).

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1 Comment

  1. Excuse me, but “second assistant to a dog-catcher in south-south-east Nowhere ” is not an appropriate way to attempt to denigrate someone as a “nobody,” which is actually what that line is attempting to do. IT’S A JOB, a job I bet someone underemployed (or even someone employed, if the job offers benefits) would like to have, and since so many of us are underemployed these days, we don’t appreciate job-shamers.
    Maybe try saying “we’re at the point where if someone who is hardly qualified to be the judge of anything outside of his own navel,” or “some bigot, somewhere, who’d never get attention otherwise.”

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