The Promise and Dangers of Influencer Journalism

Laura Loomer and Michael Yon
Ruben2533/Shutterstock Gage Skidmore/Shutterstock Wikimedia

The collapse of so much mainstream media and conventional journalism has created a promising opportunity for creators, influencers, citizen journalists, and others to fill in the gap. But these kinds of reporting can lack the rigor of their old-school, real-world counterparts. 

A new piece from The New York Times this week considers reporting from largely conservative pundits around immigration into the US, specifically through a hazardous expanse of Panamanian wilderness known as the Darién Gap.

Several right-wing American activists and internet personalities – such as former Congressional candidate Laura Loomer – have been traveling to the Darién Gap and speaking to migrants headed for the US. According to The Times, it’s part of a larger attempt to construct a narrative around illegal immigration, that the people attempting to enter the US are, in Loomer’s words, “jihadists or people with jihadist tendencies.”

It would be naive to suggest that any reporter, even one working for a newspaper like The New York Times, goes into a new story with zero preconceptions about what they’re going to write. That’s just not how human brains work. Typically, a professional journalist would already be a bit informed about the background of a story before going to work on it, so naturally, they have a sense of how their investigation is going to develop.

Conventional journalism, however, has long had mechanisms in place to keep these personal biases and preconceptions in check. Editors and fact-checkers are there to provide a kind of balance and professionalism. The goal, if the story is appearing in the news rather than the op-ed section, is mainly to provide accurate information, not to foster a particular narrative. In the case of Loomer and the other self-described journalists headed to the Darién Gap, they’re only presenting information and interviews that serve their point. It’s not really journalism, it’s persuasion if you want to put it positively, and propaganda if you want to use the pejorative term.

Propaganda is certainly nothing new, on social media or elsewhere. But in an environment with dwindling resources for reliable, non-partisan journalism, the punditry is fast becoming the only game in town.

Don Lemon’s CNN show was maybe not a bastion of clear and opinion-free reporting to begin with, but it represented the best efforts of an entire, diverse news organization working in tandem to create a product with some level of accuracy and relevance. His first internet-exclusive episode as an online creator featured Lemon bickering with X owner Elon Musk; based on the posted views, most people have only seen clips of the argument with limited content. The interview was enough to spoil the burgeoning professional relationship between Lemon and Musk but did it impart any important actual information to viewers?

Internet content – even the best internet content – is driven exclusively by clicks and algorithms. While newspapers, magazines, and even websites once relied on regulars and subscribers – and the need to consistently provide intriguing, informative, accurate, and relevant content to these readers – online news in 2024 is a mall that’s being constantly restocked, where everyone is exclusively window shopping all the time. You constantly throw up flashy new displays designed exclusively to grab bystander’s attention, and if that doesn’t work, you try something else. 

It’s why websites that once provided real cultural commentary and analysis now focus on generic articles that answer prominent search queries, like “when is X movie going to be on streaming?” and explainers recounting the endings of popular films and TV shows.

This situation is grim but not entirely hopeless. For one thing, the openness and freedom of the internet mean that creators can help police one another, and with so many openings for new voices to fill in the gap left by old media, there is a real opportunity here to reshape what media looks like moving forward in a more positive way. Tools like Patreon and Substack and Medium provide some ways to build and cultivate an audience for quality independent journalism. However, it helps to already have a decent following to generate any revenue there.

Younger generations raised on social media also have a baseline level of savviness about how these platforms work, and how they can be used to spread misinformation. Which should be fostered and encouraged. More focus on media literacy and cultural analysis in schools should be a priority. We teach young people how to understand Elizabethan plays and 19th-century novels. But not how to unpack YouTube videos with political agendas. That must change.

Communication technology, even AI, is not inherently good or bad. It comes down to how people use it and what kinds of cultural standards we set. So far, the level of professionalism in Twitch, YouTube, and TikTok journalism leaves something to be desired, but that doesn’t mean it will always work that way.

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