With its simple red, white, and blue lower third chyron and utterly innocuous name, Newsmax TV could be a minor news network like any other. Except it’s not. Newsmax TV is an ultra-conservative outlet that’s been operating on the fringe since 1998. But in recent weeks, it’s been catching on.
The typically conservative Fox News has not gotten behind Trump’s lie that there has been voter fraud, and that Biden is therefore not yet the president-elect. Seeing this as a betrayal, Trump, his allies, and subsequently his followers, have been turning to other sources of information willing to spread the message they want to hear.
One of those sources is Newsmax. Both a cable TV channel and a digital outlet, Newsmax’s Instagram posts, according to CrowdTangle data, have been dominating virality numbers, with three of the top 10 most viral posts in the politics category in the past three days coming from Newsmax. It’s been one of the top five most downloaded apps in the App Store all week. CNN Business reports that the cable channel’s nightly TV shows are getting 700,000 – 800,000 viewers; pre-election during the summer, the channel averaged 25,000 viewers at any given time. And on Thursday, also according to CrowdTangle, Newsmax’s Facebook page had the third most interactions in the politics category on Facebook — right behind President Trump and Fox News.
The posts garnering the obscure outlet all this attention? Video segments and articles challenging the legitimacy of the election, alluding to voter fraud, criticizing mainstream news outlets, and, of course, supporting and parroting President Trump.
This is the success Newsmax has been hoping for since its founding as an alternative to Fox News back in the ‘90s. It probably won’t last.
“It seems like this boost is likely to be just kind of a flash in the pan for them,” Jared Holt, a visiting researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, who specializes in extremism and misinformation, said. Once the lawsuits pan out and the recounts finish, and Biden does in fact become the president on January 20, Fox News can go back to criticizing the Democrats as it always has. Once that happens, Holt said, “the selling point is gone.”
Unfortunately, that reality check might take weeks, or even months, to sink in. And even when Biden is president, a host of Trump supporters will have become more familiar with, and perhaps open to, messages from Newsmax.
So let’s say in the weeks to come that you encounter a Facebook or Instagram post from Newsmax. Or maybe your relative brings up a Newsmax report during a digital Thanksgiving dinner. There are a few things you should know.
The first is about the founder of Newsmax, Christopher Ruddy. Ruddy is a long time Republican political figure. He’s been a member of multiple high-profile conservative think tanks, like the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. That gives Newsmax somewhat more cachet among Republican politicians; Newsmax has been able to score interviews with high profile Republicans from Alan Dershowitz to top economic adviser Larry Kudlow. That’s unusual considering what a small network it is. Additionally, according to Holt and other news reports, Ruddy is a friend and ally of president Trump.
“I think because it is older and because the person who runs it is connected in GOP politics [it] gets treated with slightly more legitimacy by a broader stretch of Republicans,” Holt said.
Though Ruddy founded Newsmax in 1998, it did not become a cable channel until 2014. Granted, it’s a network in the high hundreds, and Holt described the look and feel of the broadcasts as “like the news broadcast of a low budget sci-fi movie.” Nevertheless, Ruddy’s connections and its longer history have contributed to more recent success. Over the past decades, it’s gained notoriety as a landing pad for figures who, for whatever reason, can no longer air their views on Fox News. That includes the disgraced Bill O’Reilly, the Trump-fired Sean Spicer, and conservative bloggers Diamond & Silk. The average Republican might not have heard of Newsmax before this week, but if someone was still seeking out the views of Bill O’Reilly, they might have inadvertently found themselves flipping to Newsmax TV in the past.
Newsmax’s closest competitor is One America News Network (OANN). Trump has praised both outlets while criticizing Fox and other networks. However, OANN has caught on in the Trump era in a more high profile way: Trump even awarded OANN with a seat in the White House press briefing room. It’s not exactly clear why: A San Diego businessman founded OANN in 2013 and has been unabashedly pro-Trump from the beginning of his campaign to today. However, Newsmax’s political connections might currently be giving it an edge: Ted Cruz spoke on the Network Tuesday, and multiple outlets, including the New York Times, have been reporting on its success in courting Trump devotees by refusing to call the election for Biden.
Newsmax likes to position itself as an alternative to a biased mainstream media. Its tagline is? “Independent. American.” But a quick scan through its headlines — “Fake news too eager to crown Biden,” ”Democrats have history of voter fraud” — shows that it is anything but objective. This speaks to a widespread problem of the Trump era: Giving something the appearance of news, and a platform, can lend credence to the weight of its words.
“Presentation really matters, so if you have propaganda or disinformation to sell, you can sell it a lot more effectively if you dress it up like the real thing,” Holt said. “Someone who is casually scrolling along on social media or flipping through the channels could come across Newsmax and, you know, at least initially treat it like any other news source, making them more vulnerable to disinformation.”
Newsmax’s success will potentially be short-lived. However, even its temporary rise to popularity has the effect of diluting a notion of objective truth, and threatening our democracy. As always, when checking out the latest viral post on social media, or finding a “news” report in the upper hundreds, consider the source.
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