The word “alternative” seems to draw to it a certain type of person like wasps to a jam jar. The most conspicuous example is perhaps in medicine, where large sums of money can be made hawking crank cures to the credulous for everything from hair loss to terminal cancer.
The internet age has been propitious to the growth of another alternative space, too: that of the “alternative’ media”, a digital outpost which markets itself as a repository of news and analysis the corporate mainstream would rather you didn’t see.
The alternative media exists for several reasons. For one thing, the hurdles that media start-ups have to surmount are lower today than they were in the pre-internet age. In the past it was impossible to start a newspaper without owning a printing press, whereas today all you need is an internet connection and a dash of initiative.
The romantic aura that surrounds 20th century journalism – promoted by novels such as Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and the exploits of swashbuckling journalists like Hunter S. Thompson and Christopher Hitchens – has also resulted in a glut of graduates aspiring to be journalists at a time when the bottom has fallen out of salaried writing.
Add to the mix the boringly decorous consensus of so much of the mainstream media and you have a recipe for a burgeoning alternative space. And I should know: for three years I edited the independent left-wing blog Left Foot Forward, a website which started from scratch in 2009 and which now receives millions of visitors each year.
Yet as with so much in the alternative universe, the alternative media has a tendency to attract those with an agenda even more pernicious than the mainstream it purports to counteract. To “question more”, often means simply to replace one set of second-hand assumptions with the second-hand assumptions of anti-Western sources which throw out any pretence at objectivity.
The most obvious examples of this phenomenon are state propaganda networks such as RT (formerly Russia Today), Press TV and Venezuela-based network Telesur. In the west, these outlets function something like western communist parties functioned during the Cold War. Their funding and party line are handed down directly from America’s enemies and misinformation favourable to the power interests of their government backers is disseminated in the West in print, on television and radio and online.
As in the past, on the rung down below this out-and-out propaganda sit the west’s so-called useful idiots: Westerners who, without taking their orders directly from countries such as Russia and Iran, are nevertheless happy to swallow and propagate the worldview of these rival imperialisms. This role is played increasingly effectively by those who locate themselves within the penumbra of the ‘alternative’ media – a space in which “speaking truth to power” means reliably spouting the opposite line to one’s own government in the manner of a sullen teenager churlishly contradicting his parents.
If one were to draw up a list of the most popular “alternative” news sources to which this criticism might apply, one would, at a minimum, include the following websites:
This is by no means a comprehensive list of every well-read alternative news outlet, but it is a representative sample in terms of the behaviour I am referring to. The aforementioned websites range from the broadly conspiracist - Global Research has hosted articles on vaccines (anti), climate change denial and “North Korea: land of love and joy” – to the oppositional but with a modicum of sanity – AlterNet positions itself as a “progressive activist site” and its articles are often shared on social media by what one might call serious journalists.
Despite the superficial differences, the raison d'etre of all of these websites appears to be to distract readers from what Western elites are talking about in a “look over there” fashion. So, should Barack Obama appear on CNN to warn of a nuclear attack on America by, let’s say, North Korea, an article will soon enough appear on one of the aforementioned news websites rubbishing the claim. Conversely, should America or a government allied to America commit an egregious violation of human rights, that crime will be blown out of all proportion and cited as evidence of the West’s inherent wickedness.
The important thing to remember is that the alternative media will take one of these two lines of argument regardless of the truth of the matter.
There is a wealth of evidence to support this point:
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and Media Lens both tried to exculpate the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad for the massacre in Houla and for the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta;
Media Lens supported denial of genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda;
Jacobin has vigorously defended the government of Bashar al Assad;
AlterNet has hosted articles denying Ghouta and cited 9/11 truther Nafeez Ahmed to argue that Israel is controlling American policy on Syria. The website has also hosted articles claiming the US ‘turned Vladimir Putin into a villain’ and pieces urging Crimea to “join Russia”. (Bizarrely, AlterNet also lies about the size of its readership, claiming to attract over 5.9 million visitors per month - web ratings service Quantcast estimates it actually receives 1.3 million monthly readers.)
Self-proclaimed “independent watchdog” site MintPress News blamed Syrian rebels for chemical weapons attacks in Ghouta and defended the Russian invasion of Crimea against Ukraine’s “illegitimate government”.
Alternative media outlets often rely on a number of social media loudmouths to disseminate this pernicious brand of whataboutery, with those who find themselves in even slight agreement with the Western establishment liable to be showered with a wave of invective - “shill”, “imperialist”, “Zionist” etc (even mentioning the crimes of Communism instantly marks one down as a McCarthyite, according to one AlterNet editor.)
The typical refrain of this “anti-establishment” world when examples like those cited above are pointed out tends to say that the primary job of activists is to focus on the crimes of one’s own rulers – and by extension the crimes of the allies of those rulers. There is already enough by way of demonisation of opponents of the Western consensus in the corporate media, so the argument runs; thus it is the job of mavericks in the alternative media to hold their own governments to account for their crimes.
In theory this ought to mean a laser-like focus on the west’s willingness to acquiesce in human rights abuses when committed by “friendly” governments in places like Saudi Arabia and Israel. So far, so reasonable. Yet, as demonstrated above, in practice it seems also to involve wiping from the record any evidence that the west’s enemies are as bad as the west says they are.
This is useful idiocy of an order that would not have been out of place in an organ of a western communist party during high Stalinism.
Cold War analogies, though, only get us so far. In contrast to the Western communists of the past, the self-styled dissidents of today’s alternative media do not appear to actually believe in anything. Unlike their Cold War counterparts, these self-styled internet dissidents lack a blueprint for utopia and thus espouse something closer to nihilism than socialism – they despise their own societies like a convict despises his jailer, and as a consequence are willing to exculpate from wrongdoing anyone who professes to hate their societies too. The resulting pseudo-scepticism resembles a man staring intently into a mirror, with the light of illumination only ever reflecting back at the blemishes on his own face.
The resulting content is not “TRUTH” or “ACCURACY”, to use the preferred vernacular of this online world (capitalisation is preferred), but a medium in which the propaganda of western elites is replaced by the propaganda of the west’s enemies – typically undemocratic states such as Russia, Iran and Venezuela. State socialism may be dead, but what thinking socialists used to call the “anti-imperialism of fools” lives on in the crankish guise of purported “open-mindedness” and ‘“scepticism” (who after all can object to those things?).
And so, for all they see themselves as being at the forefront of the online anti-imperialist struggle, the doyens of the alternative media end up pushing the very imperialist propaganda they profess to despise. By routinely promoting material which denies or downplays the crimes of anti-western dictatorships, these self-styled dissidents help to tighten the screws on the very dissent they claim to revere – spouting unfettered the line of governments much less democratic than their own. Like their corporate mainstream counterparts, these supposedly impartial observers of the world regularly end up as active participants in it, serving imperialisms as repugnant as anything found in even the most Blimpish corners of the west.