Sign up to receive the Future Tense newsletter every other Saturday.
The evidence is overwhelming: There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about a foreign-backed influential media platform undermining faith in America by leveraging its hypnotic hold on its audience to spread misinformation harmful to our social cohesion and democracy.
TikTok, you ask? Nah—Fox News.
Future Tensers aren’t prone to the type of xenophobia peddled on a daily basis by Fox News. But if we were to turn the tables and go all Fox News on Fox News, we could make much of the fact that in order to launch and control the Fox broadcast network that would later beget the cable news channel without running afoul of foreign ownership limits on broadcasting licenses, Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media tycoon, became a naturalized American citizen. Isn’t it interesting, as any number of Fox News hosts might sneer, that this supposedly “American” outlet that goes to such lengths to wrap itself in the flag has made so much money by dividing Americans and sowing mistrust in our institutions?
The extent to which Fox knowingly spreads falsehoods harmful to the country has become abundantly clear (contrary to its claims that it was just reporting one campaign’s allegations) in the treasure trove of evidence coming to light thanks to the $1.6 billion defamation suit brought against the network by Dominion Voting Systems. Network officials and on-air talent, we now know, were variously annoyed and concerned that their since-ousted election data analysts called Arizona for Joe Biden on election night.
This accurate call, which appeared to seal Trump’s electoral fate, triggered an existential crisis for the network because loyal Fox News viewers were woefully unprepared to accept that Trump could lose the 2020 presidential election fair and square—precisely because they were loyal Fox News viewers. Their sense of reality had been so hopelessly distorted by a news channel whose business model has long been predicated on convincing its aging, conservative audience that disdainful, know-it-all cosmopolitan elites are preying on their decency, credulity, and patriotism to conspire against American greatness. Under Fox’s proven formula (adopted from right-wing talk radio), Hannity, Ingraham, Carlson, and other hosts become America’s last line of defense, decoding the vast conspiracies targeting them—conservative network and audience alike. The cultish hold Fox developed over its viewers was akin to the bond binding besieged combatants who’ve shared a trench or a bunker.
Now, the water hose of incriminating evidence emerging from the lawsuit proves that the disdainful know-it-all conspirators preying on viewers’ anxieties were actually their Fox News trenchmates. Tucker Carlson, who has been busy this week trying to minimize the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, texted in the days after the election that Trump’s lawyer Sidney Powell was lying; Sean Hannity chimed in that her co-counsel Rudy Giuliani was “acting like an insane person,” and Laura Ingraham agreed that he was “such an in idiot.” Murdoch himself emailed Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott that the Trump camp’s claims were “really crazy stuff” and that it was “very hard to credibly claim foul everywhere.”
In the days and weeks following the 2020 vote, Fox’s personalities oscillated between complaining about the network’s initial accurate reporting on Trump’s loss and the shoddy script Trump’s legal team was feeding them, which they mocked off camera but breathlessly peddled on the air. Hopefully, Dominion Voting Systems, a company targeted by the Trump team’s nonsensical conspiracies, will make Fox pay for its damaging lies when the case goes to trial next month.
The disclosures about the endemic corruption at the core of Fox News are riveting in their own right, but the story also offers a cautionary tale for those seeking solutions to the spread of misinformation in other media, and particularly on social media platforms.
I have been thinking about this since listening to Ethan Zuckerman speak at a January Future Tense event held in Los Angeles. Zuckerman, who wrote a fascinating chapter in “You are Not Expected to Understand This”: How 26 Lines of Code Changed the World about his guilt over writing code for pop-up ads in the internet’s early days, explained his well-known thesis that advertising is the “original sin” of the digital age. This argument has become conventional wisdom, and for good reason. It does seem to follow that a service that is free to consumers but relies heavily on third-party advertising for its revenue will favor clickbait-y—and sensationalist and polarizing—content to increase that ad revenue.
But as activists who have long tried to exert pressure on Fox News via advertiser boycotts know by now, the nation’s most influential purveyor of misinformation is fairly insulated from advertising concerns. Blue-chip corporate America has mostly given up on Fox News (whose top advertiser, famously, is MyPillow), and the channel makes the vast majority of its profits (roughly $1.6 billion out of $1.8 billion in that election year of 2020) from the antiquated carriage fees that cable operators must pay to include the channel on their system.
All the private communications coming to light because of the litigation make clear how obsessed everyone at Fox is with ratings, but in this case high ratings are important because they justify higher carriage fees, not higher advertising revenue. Same thing, you might say, but only if we agree that what matters is the content’s popularity, regardless of its truth. It isn’t merely through advertising that the more popular becomes the more profitable. The fees cable users and systems pay Fox News or ESPN to be included in a bundle are not that different from the subscription individuals might pay for a particular newsletter or magazine. And if my nonsensationalist newsletter has 100 paying subscribers and your they’re-coming-for-you conspiracy-peddling newsletter has a million paying subscribers, advertising isn’t what is creating the incentives to lean into polarizing sensationalism. As Justin Peters recently wrote in Slate, for Fox, lying is good business.
Advertising has its downsides as the default business model to apply to all new forms of media, and I find indiscriminate advertising as annoying as the next person. But I worry that we kid ourselves if we overstate its importance as the culprit creating incentives for clickbait-y misinformation. Sadly, there will always be a business model for charlatans peddling existential conspiracy theories to gullible followers.
Here are some stories from the recent past of Future Tense.
Wish We’d Published This
“Satellite Technology Raises New Issues for American Military,” by Christian Davenport, the Washington Post
Future Tense Fiction
February’s story was “Intangible Variation,” by Meg Charlton. It follows Daren, a 49-year-old man who is obsessed with a genetic testing site called GENMatch. It’s there that Daren finds TJ, a man 10 years his junior, with no apparent family connection—but who shares 98 percent of his DNA. When the men meet up, things … don’t quite go as planned. In the story’s response essay, Slate’s Heather Tal Murphy, who often covers DNA tech, explains what it really means to share genes with a stranger.
Future Tense Recommends
First, a disclaimer: I would recommend anything Billy Crudup is in; he is that compelling an actor. His latest work, Hello Tomorrow!, is the most visually arresting retrofuturism to be captured on screen in a long time. Is this Apple TV+ series set in the future, or in the 1950s? Or is it an alternative 1950s encroached upon by different future incursions? The show revolves around Crudup’s con of selling lunar condos to forsaken people in forsaken places who are desperate for a new start, or at least a way out. The retrofuturism works to remind us of space’s durability as a next frontier that keeps being just out of reach.
What Next: TBD
On Friday’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast, host Lizzie O’Leary spoke with Johana Bhuiyan, of the Guardian, about what happens when social media companies turn over user data to law enforcement—especially in a post-Roe world. Last week, Lizzie spoke to Matthew Schneier, of New York Magazine, about the rise of Ozempic, and she also interviewed virologist Angela Rasmussen about what’s really going on with the COVID-19 lab leak theory. On Sunday, Lizzie will chat with Slate staff writer Heather Tal Murphy about what happened when she used ChatGPT as a wingman on Tinder.
On Wednesday, March 15, at 12 p.m. Eastern, Future Tense will host “North America’s Semiconductor Moment,” an online conversation about the reshuffling of global semiconductor supply chains—and whether the U.S. and Mexico can work together to seize the moment. RSVP and learn more here.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.