They’ve been mocked, ignored, and dismissed as conspiracy mongers – but a small group of hyperpartisan British media outlets have quietly built enormous audiences on Facebook in the space of just two years with relentlessly pro-Corbyn coverage. But how will the British alt-left media cope with the election?
Even if you’re a political obsessive you’ve probably never heard of Thomas G Clark. It’s understandable: He’s not a politician, so he doesn’t get much press coverage or many requests for comment. Nor is he a political pundit, so he doesn’t spend his time taking part in profile-raising TV programmes, or arguing the toss with opponents in carefully balanced, Ofcom-friendly debates that never stray too far from the political agenda set by that morning’s newspapers and BBC news bulletins.
Clark doesn’t have much of an inside track on what’s going on in Westminster and he’s not even particularly aligned with any single political party – with the exception of holding strong anti-Tory views. In fact, he’s a thirtysomething part-time English tutor originally from the Yorkshire Dales who has never previously spoken to the media and was quite happy to keep a relatively low profile until BuzzFeed News got in touch.
He’s also, measured by Facebook shares per article in the first week of the election campaign, the most viral political journalist in the entire country.
Clark’s site, Another Angry Voice, is attracting a readership that most mainstream news sites would kill for. Despite still being hosted on an old-fashioned Blogspot account and relying on donations for funding, it’s reaching millions of people with a combination of endearingly homemade memes, Facebook-friendly headlines, and a regular output of relentlessly anti-Conservative takes on the news. Recent mega-viral hits include “How many of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies do you actually disagree with?”, “30 things you should know about the Tory record”, and “The systematic Tory abuse of disabled people”.
Just as the likes of Breitbart broke into the mainstream during the 2016 US presidential election by exploiting a lack of right-wing viral news, the 2017 general election is driving record traffic to the loose collection of alt-left British outlets that are positioning themselves as Corbyn’s outriders, jumping on stories without much of the nuance of outlets that remain rooted in mainstream reporting traditions.
There’s nothing particularly new about such outlets. It’s well over a decade since political blogging established itself in the UK and Clark himself has been quietly running his site for seven years, with little initial success: Clark says he “used to punch the air” when a post reached 10,000 views. But until around 2015 most of these blogs remained aimed at an insider audience or local activists – featuring titbits widely read by those in the Westminster bubble or people who work at mainstream news organisations, or appealing only to the rare members of the public who waste their lives discussing political news. It usually took an established outlet to pick up a story in order to make it go mainstream.
What’s changed is that, according to analysis conducted by BuzzFeed News during the first two weeks of the election campaign, articles by Another Angry Voice and other similar alt-left media publications such as The Canary, Evolve Politics, and Skwawkbox are consistently and repeatedly going more viral than mainstream UK political journalism.
This election marks the tipping point following years of growth, where a core audience of millions of left-leaning readers are consuming such sites in isolation and obsessing over their completely distinct news agenda. Driven almost entirely by what shares well on Facebook, they barely register in the Twitter-dominated world of Westminster journalists, except when they’re occasionally mocked for their supposedly borderline-conspiracy interpretations of events. But there are common factors to their success: an unashamed role as a cheerleader for Jeremy Corbyn, producing openly slanted coverage in support of the Labour leader, all filtered through the prism of mainstream media criticism.
“When you follow something like The Guardian or the Mirror, one minute they’re posting good stuff that holds the Tories to account, and the next they’re posting anti-Corbyn stuff that goes way over the line by abusing/misrepresenting him and bullying his supporters,” explained Clark when asked why his stories are more viral than other outlets. “I guess my page just isn’t as cognitive dissonance–inducing because people know more or less what kind of stuff I’m likely to do.”