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Topic Dynamics in the Right Wing during the 2016 U.S. Election

The second presenter in this AoIR 2017 session is Adrian Rauchfleisch, who begins by highlighting the highly combative and complex nature of the 2016 U.S. election campaign. Counterpublics played an important role here, too; new actors – especially on the right – were able to make their voices heard during the campaign, through some more established actors (Fox News, and Trump himself) also claimed not to be part of the mainstream.

At present, in fact, many right-wing movements around the world position themselves as counterpublics, and one of the key defining characteristics may be an exclusion, or at least a perception of exclusion, from mainstream public debate. The element of demarkation from the mainstream that this entails also helps build a strong and distinct identity for the movement, but a too complete disconnect from the mainstream also creates problems in growing the movement. The goals of identity formation and audience engagement are likely to conflict here.

The present project applied this to a number of right-wing sites during the election. It drew on the media monitoring service Media Cloud, selecting nine right-wing outlets from the established right wing, the 'alt-right' and the far right and capturing some 1.4 million stories about the election. The electoral horse-race as well as election scandals were most prominent, and immigration policy also featured substantially.

Distinct topics within the articles included matters relating to Clinton, her emails, and the Clinton Foundation; these were prominent in the mainstream right-wing media. Other topics addressed white nationalist identity, and these were prominent in the far right sites. Climate change and energy policy was featured by far the most in Infowars, and the far right as well as Breitbart paid most attention to immigration policy.

The far right sites were clearly distinct in their topic selection, with Breitbart most closely matching their focus (but at some distance); overall, the mainstream and 'alt-right' sites remained comparatively similar in their choice of topics, with only the far right standing out as significantly distinct. Fox News and Breitbart also moved together in the focus of their coverage; Breitbart may be somewhat preceding Fox News in its attention to specific topics, but it also links considerably more frequently to Fox News stories than vice versa.

Breitbart could be seen as a kind of a bridge between mainstream and far right topics, then, but it does not position itself on the far right; instead it attempts to serve a broader constituency and in this way brings together an otherwise fragmented set of movements on the right.