Book review: Kristoffer Holt. Right-Wing Alternative Media
Every month, Right Now! publishes the book reviews that have appeared in the latest volume of E-Extreme the newsletter of the ECPR Standing Group on Extremism & Democracy. In this post, David Jofré (University of Glasgow) discusses Kristoffer Holt's Right Wing Alternative Media.
Kristoffer Holt. Right Wing Alternative Media
Routledge, 2019. 97 pp., £49.99. ISBN 978-1-138-31830-4
Along with the electoral success of right-wing populism in Western countries, we witness today the proliferation of citizen-led alternative media operations on the 12 right. These media types are challenging traditional journalism by discussing issues that most would consider unacceptable and phobic in the public discourse. Incommoded commentators have been quick to condemn them as ‘evil media’, but Professor Kristoffer Holt (Gulf University of Science and Technology) believes that we should approach them scientifically. In his book Right-wing Alternative Media (2020), Holt asks simple, yet tricky, questions like whether right-wing media can be conceptually alternative and, if so, why they exist. Holt is also interested in both the structural and relational consequences of right-wing alternative media activity, for which he asks if they pose a threat to the existing order and have produced reactions from mainstream politicians and media actors. With research experience in mass media, public discourse and populism, Holt is undoubtedly well-suited to lead this discussion.
The book is a systematic review of existing categorisations and research on alternative media. Divided into five chapters, the first part of the book is where Holt selects diverse theories to build his own conceptual framework to understand alternative media in general. This framework is welcomed in a field that has seen only moderate progress since the seminal works of John Downing and Chris Atton on radical and alternative media. In chapter one, Holt presents his pillar argument: right-wing alternative media are conceived by their producers as an alternative to the mainstream news. The argument invites the reader to understand them in relational terms. Simply put, some citizens feel unfairly represented in the news and censored in the public space due to a culture perceived has increasingly oversensitive, and this grievance motivates them to publish diverse alternative content, which may range from offensive to more extremist and dangerous.
In the second chapter, Holt proceeds to assess the impact of right-wing alternative media on the landscape. It is especially interesting to read here how the author builds his own theoretical framework. He contends that ‘theoretical assumptions about alternative media must be valid regardless of what ideological orientation they have in order to be useful’ (p. 29). This is why the book’s most significant contributions to the literature are found here. Based on a cross-disciplinary exercise, where Holt consults a categorisation originally used for political parties, the book distinguishes different types of anti-system alternative media in relation to how they position themselves in front of the status quo. While some alternative media are not really anti-systemic, or are way too extreme to be considered relevant, others have more serious polarising effects. Basically, if alternative media manage to attract ‘harsh criticism and expressions of indignation from mainstream journalists, then their relation to anti-systemness is significant and affects public discourse in a polarising way’ (p. 67). So ultimately, right-wing alternative media is not proposed in Holt’s book as a closed-ended category but rather as an umbrella term. In chapter 3, the author 13 reviews existing empirical research on right-wing alternative media, mostly qualitative case studies. He emphasises his own previous work on Swedish immigration-critical media scene, but also finds interesting connections between rightwing populism and online outlets in many other contemporary studies. Thanks to this assessment, Holt moves beyond moral commentary to understand the issue in its real-life consequences, one of which is the use of alternative media by populist politicians as a strategic platform to convey their ideas about gender and race.
Despite its various strengths, Holt’s book has some limitations. In his attempt to explain the very existence of these media at the most elemental level, Holt misses a couple of key points. In the third chapter, he reviews empirical research on the audience of right-wing alternative media, as well as propaganda and echo chamber phenomena, but little is mentioned about the human component behind the production of alternative news. In a way, the book engages with explaining what motivates producers to disseminate non-mainstream information, but not how these producers want to connect with their audience. Clemencia Rodríguez’s book on citizen media in Colombia sheds some light on this aspect. She argues that citizens produce their own media in order to create and sustain a local community, thus community-building seems key to understand why people participate in alternative media operations of any kind. For some reason, however, Holt has not incorporated Rodríguez’s concepts into his framework, despite his evident efforts to rely on the ‘classics’ of alternative media scholarship. Moreover, throughout the book there is a strong implication that alternative media can be powerful enough to influence journalistic editors. This argument is quite interesting, especially for media scholars, yet it is not explored in light of intermedia agenda-setting theories, which have been very insightful to comprehend how alternative outlets can set the mainstream media agenda.
Holt is aware of other limitations of his book, partly because ‘the research frontier is still too foggy’ (p. 74) for him. Sooner than later, scholars will have to distinguish between right-wing alternative media in democratic and autocratic states to fully understand their growth and societal effects. For now, the book manages to provide a valuable conceptual toolbox to treat right-wing alternative media as an object of scientific inquiry. Equipped with this toolbox, the reader can distinguish dangerous populist media from irrelevant niche media, so the book works more as a warning than a predicament about the future of journalism. This warning is that if our society decides to respect the right to express hateful ideas, the corridor of opinion will become wider and wider, and mainstream journalism might incorporate parts of some right-wing alternative media’s perspectives. In Holt’s eyes, the only way to minimise this risk is to apply repressive tolerance measures, even if that means curtailing the aspects of social media that were celebrated at the beginning. The depths of this present-day disjunctive are what make this book a fascinating reading, not only to media scholars but also to all those interested in the evolution of right-wing populism.
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