Taking TheBlaze.com as a case study, I here employ the concept of recontextualisation as a framework for examining three particular dimensions of audience engagement with the discourse of political and media elites: how self/other distinctions are given voice orthographically in digitally-mediated discourse, how Glenn Beck’s positioning as a conservative is contested by commenters, and how the media choice of users is classified by commenters as a mode of political action. Although they are distinguished here for the purposes of my analysis, I see these as three interrelated elements of the same performative processes that typify user-generated responses to media representations. Whilst partisanship amongst media elites may have distinct foundations and motivations when compared with the partisanship of publics, media figures and audience “produsers” (Bruns 2016) can nevertheless each draw on similar cultural resources in articulating self/other distinctions. Here, I focus on a variety of ways in which a hybridised outrage media audience openly contested those representations in their online political talk during the 2016 election.
Giving voice to identity/alterity distinctions through text
To begin my empirical discussion, I first look to the linguistic and textual form of my data. As noted earlier, the forms of linguistic creativity specific to digital textuality have a particular relevance when studying the performance of self/other distinctions. For example, Twitter has been characterised as a “vernacular site of social practice” and tweets as an example of talk that takes place in under-regulated space of orthographic linguistic habits (Squires and Iorio 2014). Processes of recontextualisation are here implicated in a number of ways. With reference to the participatory spaces of social media, for instance, Androutsopoulos (2011) has argued that “‘old’ vernaculars are recontextualised to index lifestyles and associated social types,” whilst “‘new’ digital vernaculars may index a range of political, cultural or aesthetic orientations.” In this view, digital vernaculars are contrasted with standard orthographic forms. In below-the-line comment fields, the recontextualisation and expression of outrage by commenting users is open to creative use of orthography in ways that institutional media outputs frequently are not.
What kinds of novel practices of linguistic creativity characterise these spaces? The use of the portmanteau is a central feature of an emerging digital vernacular in computer-mediated communication. One of the most important ways in which speakers display an outrageous rhetorical style is through the use of name-calling, targeted at political parties, politicians, and partisans alike. My data are marked by partisan name-calling through the creative use of portmanteau terms and other forms of jargon. Hossain et al. (2018) refer to this phenomenon as “creative political slang,” defined as “a recently-coined, non-standard word that conveys a positive or negative attitude towards a person, a group of people, an institution, or an issue that is the subject of discussion in political discourse.”
Throughout my sample appear a variety of references to Obummer, Dimocrats, Hitlery amongst others. These terms have a narrative complexity of their own, condensing forms of commentary that simultaneously reference identities and modes of character. They also appear alongside an array of conspiratorial and polarising claims, including the assertion that the purported Russian hacking of the 2016 US presidential election was merely continuing work already being carried out by the Clintons and the Democratic Party. However, the following excerpt features one of the more prominent portmanteau insults directed at the liberal left:
People are energized to reclaim their country from the barbarians that have controlled it. The carrier politicians who think they, and they alone run the country, along with then libtards who assumed they could simply change this country into just another third world socialist crap heap, without the people having anything to say about it.
The term “libtards” has a vibrant social life beyond the context of this particular data sample. Ebner (2019) highlights how, in the US context, libtard is a “derogatory term used by the Alt-Right—combining the words liberal and retard—to describe left leaning liberals” (2019, p. 169). Whilst Hossain et al. (2018) refer to the term as a form of creative political slang, Gao et al. (2017) classify it as a hate slur term in their analysis of hate speech on Twitter following the 2016 US presidential election. Shin and Doyle (2018) have related the use of the term to judgments regarding group identities in online political discourse.
In the context of online user-generated discourse, it is clear that orthography has become an important mechanism of not only expression but also of resistance. Modifications to the shape of text also perform important recontextualising functions. As Sobieraj and Berry (2011) noted of text-based communication, for example, “the deliberate use of uppercase letters, multiple exclamation points, enlarged text, and so on” constitutes “shouting”—a form of meaning-making that has been sedimented through repetition. The following comment demonstrates the deployment of these expressive modes of formatting:
When you mimic like parrots and spout the Leftist terminology (such as “fascist”) when such terms do not apply in the least, and intensely protest THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE of this country as far as the results of the election, you expose to all just how out of touch you really are. Donald Trump is not even in office, and yet these lunatics are accusing the man of complete nonsense. Where were you when Obama and the DemoRATS were passing unConstitutional legislation and executive orders to bypass Congress?
As argued above, “below-the-line” comment fields are one point of integration of elite and public discourse. Whilst the structure of below-the-line comment fields plots out the key distinction between media and public, participants can draw on digital vernacular practices in expressing their agency as produsers. These practices distinguish the discourse of users from the standardised and regimented discourse of journalists and institutional media, even whilst users cite media content as resources in their responses.
At the same time, these digital vernacular forms are deployed in the performance of a specifically conservative vision of what constitutes legitimate political action and identification, as seen in this comment regarding the planned Women’s March on Washington, which eventually took place the day after President Trump’s inauguration:
So let them protest peacefully. Cover it once and NO more. Quit covering the tantrums, protests, and bulling agenda we voted out over and over. Start covering what the American people voted were important to us Now.
In this comment, the legitimacy of peaceful protest appears to be accepted at least to some extent. However, the comment goes on to exhort the media to “Cover it once and NO more.” Whilst the protestors may be entitled to their right to free assembly, the comment asserts the media should not be covering it. Rather, they should be giving a platform instead to the positions expressed in the election. Whilst accepting that protest is a legitimate mode of engagement, this comment nevertheless situates the source of democratic legitimacy in electoral outcomes. However, through the use of uppercase orthography, the user asserts their positioning as a critic of mainstream media through the recontextualisation of digital vernacular practice and styles of speaking through digital text.
Androutsopoulos (2016) has argued that the “use of meditational tools and uptake of mediated messages are common language practices in a mediatized society and fundamental to the circulation and diffusion of semiotic innovations in the digital age.” To the extent that the online political talk of users exists in a series of complex relations with the talk of others, user-generated below-the-line comments in the dataset frequently demonstrate explicitly heteroglot characteristics (Bakhtin 1981). However, as these brief examples demonstrate, the affordances of digital text permit complex forms of multivocality that extend beyond simple citation or re-voicing of the speech of others. There are thus important formal ways in which audience outrage differs from institutional forms of outrage discourse.
Challenges to Glenn Beck’s positioning as a conservative
Here, I explore a set of examples of how Glenn Beck and TheBlaze became the focus of the negotiation of Trump support in 2016. Research on the relationship between affect and partisan affiliation in the United States has demonstrated that polarisation has both instrumental and expressive foundations (Huddy et al. 2015). This research indicates a role for orientations towards protecting party status and advancing ideology, for example. In keeping with the findings of such research, my data feature a significant focus not only on the policy positions and ideologies of actors from across the political spectrum. Rather, commentary also frequently centres on their personal moral character. Such constructions of identity/alterity are, I argue, important stylistic elements of the contemporary performance of partisanship. However, my data indicate that the meaning of conservatism is not something that is merely iterated without critique but is rather actively contested through the discursive acts of media and their users.
With reference to my data, frequent positive characterisations of conservatives are contrasted with an abundance of antagonistic representations of Democrats, liberals, and progressives. However, the data are also characterised by a prominent metadiscourse of authenticity in which a set of intra-group oppositions is actively constructed. Here, I present an illustrative excerpt:
I am a Constitutional Conservative and people like me (and Ted) have been defeated by populists, many of whom claimed to be Constitutional Conservatives. Ted has chosen to pick up and fight as much of the fight as he can with the half way crowd until the Constitutional Conservatives have greater success. I support Ted. He is still exactly who he said he was. Trump has been all things to many people and we don't know who he would be as president because he is a liar. All that we know is that he will not be Hillary.
The focus on constitutional conservatism renders explicit a series of tensions that highlight an array of dissenting voices. This plurality of voices demonstrates ongoing, vibrant contestation in defining the meaning and nature of American conservatism. Within this field of distinction, antagonistic relations are highlighted not merely between “conservative” Republican voters and “liberal” Democrats. Rather, other Republicans are likewise deemed to have failed to live up to the publicly co-constructed standards of conservatism—e.g., Republicans In Name Only (RINOs), alongside other establishment Republicans.
The RINO—Republican In Name Only—is a key figure in the contestation of the boundaries of conservatism, one which draws on an institutional critique of the Republican Party establishment and their congressional agenda. It has been argued that engaging in primary challenges of RINOs was a key strategy of Tea Party movement candidates, with the aim of “overthrowing” establishment elites in the Republican Party (Libby 2015). Pejorative references to RINOs can be seen as attempts to circumscribe the kinds of identities that authentically can be articulated as conservative. Some combinations are highly valued, whilst others are rejected. The following excerpt, for example, features a positive claim to Christian identity whilst remarking the important role that is being foretold for Christians in their future work alongside constitutional conservatives to “save America”:
….although widely trashed on theBlaze site for switching from my primary candidate to a Trump supporter and attempting to show the hypocrisy of Glenn (Alinsky on parade), I have never wavered in my foundational love and concern for Glenn … I AM a "2" Corinthians Christian and "Constitutional" Conservatives will need ALL the Christians that they can muster in the future to save America, her sovereignty and preserve her founding documents to save Humanity during the perilous near future that we face…
One of the more notable features of this comment is the manner in which it explicitly identifies the author as a “‘2’ Corinthians Christian,” thus invoking the Second Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians and specific associations with evangelical Christianity. By distinguishing between constitutional conservatism and other forms of conservatism, as well as between “‘2’ Corinthians” Christianity and other forms of Christianity, this comment thus highlights the multiple levels on which distinctions between self and other get produced. The comment also features a set of assertions of identity that establish notable relations between Christian subject positions and support for Donald Trump. The stakes are referred to explicitly: it is claimed that Christians and conservatives must work together to deal with a perceived threat to America’s “sovereignty” and “her founding documents,” as well as to the very survival of America as a nation.
In these intra-group tensions, the spectre of the Tea Party movement looms large. The movement was a mobilisation of conservatives which had emerged soon after Barack Obama’s inauguration in early 2009. As noted by Chadwick (2017), Beck was able to leverage the horizontal online networks that had been established by the Tea Party movement when he organised the Restoring Honor rally on the National Mall in Washington DC in August 2010. In so doing, Beck was able to “reanimate” left-wing modes of protest and organisation from the post-war era (Our Literal Speed 2010) at the same time as he recontextualised rhetorical forms associated with the civil rights movement (Young 2019). According to Jutel (2018), these rallies form part of a broader apparatus of affective labour through which Beck’s media operations were able to capitalise on the “free labour” (Terranova 2000) of both his audience and Tea Party movement activists. Identity here plays a fundamental role.
In the field of critical discourse analysis (CDA), Fairclough (1995) argued that traditional media discourse is produced through chains of recontextualisation that are managed through institutional routines. This production format has helped to legitimate claims that news constitutes authoritative discourse – claims which are further supported by various professional standards, e.g., objectivity, that became synonymous with journalistic roles and practices during the twentieth century (Hanitzsch and Vos 2017). Although its partisan leanings are frequently rendered explicit, TheBlaze seeks to don the mantle of authority associated with journalism at the same time as TheBlaze and Glenn Beck decry the duplicity of mainstream outlets. This resonates with the tendency among populist figures, noted above, to characterise mainstream media in antagonistic terms, for example, through the use of the term “Lügenpresse”—i.e., “lying press”—which recontextualises a term notably associated with Nazi rhetoric regarding press criticism (Prince 2018).
However, the embeddedness of media discourse does not cease with its transmission. Media discourse may undergo further processes of textual reanimation when recontextualised by the audience. In spite of fears expressed regarding the capacity for partisan selective exposure to produce echo chambers or deliberative enclaves (see Sunstein 2018), Perrino’s (2018) analysis of how politicised collective identities are performed and asserted on blogs highlights how active audiences can also contest the meaning(s) and significance of both institutional and user-generated content. Such research is in keeping with the argument that the social life of media discourse is an important scholarly concern as a focal site of speaker creativity, in the case of both traditional media (Vidali 1996) and digital media (Danet and Herring 2007).
In this sense, media are not simply vectors of influence; they are also sites of engagement (Androutsopoulos 2016) and, by extension, contestation and transformation. Although audiences may establish various forms of “footing” or alignment with characterological figures performed through speech, as argued by Agha (2005), recontextualisation allows them to do so in ways that fundamentally challenge dominant meanings (Wu et al. 2016). In this sense, the authority assumed by media elites can be challenged in user-generated below-the-line comments. This form of resistance is notable in the following excerpt:
America is an idea, not a country.—This shows the fundamental flaw in Beck (and many others) thinking. It is one thing to support an idea, it is another to protect a nation built on that idea. Beck would cede the nation to those bent on its destruction in order to protect the 'idea'. The problem is that failing to protect the nation will see the 'idea' destroyed along with it. As those like Clinton and her Globalist ilk gain greater power, you will see the 'idea' destroyed or relegated to the dustbin of History …
Whilst directly citing Glenn Beck’s (2016) claim that “America is an idea, not a country,” this comment draws on historical imagery and prophecy in establishing an antagonistic relation between those who would threaten America and those who would seek to preserve it. At risk in this apocalyptic battle is not just the survival of America and the American way of life. Rather, the very future of humanity is seen to be at stake. Importantly, by relating past, present, and future, the comment recontextualises a historically powerful mode of rhetoric (i.e., jeremiad) that has been dominant in the discursive articulation of American nationhood since the era of New England Puritanism (Bercovitch 2012). In this sense, this excerpt offers an example of the ways in which users can actively (i.e., creatively) integrate a variety of discursive forms when framing their own responses to media representations of partisanship and political agency.
The preceding excerpts encode a specifically partisan vision of America and American nationhood. This is achieved largely by connotation, through a focus on a perceived moment of national crisis, with its attendant (albeit imagined) implications for the future of American culture, society, and identity. Beck figures centrally in this imagined conflict and is likewise portrayed as having a significant role to play in the coming collapse. Thus, whilst the final example, above, provides uptake to Beck's outputs, it nevertheless does so in a way that fundamentally resists his message. This form of pushback against partisan messaging highlights a key issue with analyses of contemporary partisanship (e.g., Mason 2018), insofar as a focus on the salience of in-groups and out-groups has privileged distinctions between Republicans and Democrats. These data point to the importance of the kind of intra-party tensions that manifest in increasingly stringent purity tests within the Republican Party—tests that are frequently administered by outrage media figures (Rosenwald 2019). There is clearly debate in this case over the parameters of the test and whether or not Beck has failed. These comments thus demonstrate how fraught this process of partisan identification can be, even in the context of a hybridised outrage media audience that some scholarship might presume to be likeminded.
Media choice as political action
If media figures are a focus of the performance of self/other distinctions, so too is the media choice of users. My argument in this article is that commenters can use below-the-line comment fields to actively contest the representations of personhood in the media they consume. This can also take the form of an explicit metacommentary on media selectivity in which media choice is recontextualised as a mode of political action. This focus is demonstrated explicitly in the following excerpt, which also highlights the “transmediality” (Bateman 2017) of Beck’s operations as well as the engagement of his audience:
If you hate Glenn Beck so much, why do you spend the time on his site, listening to his show, reading his posts, etc.? Why? Go post happy thoughts on Breitbart or Hannity's site. Be happy there instead of angry here. But I have a feeling you'll continue to troll away, cause that's what you do. Weak.
This excerpt highlights, in the first instance, the kinds of media and information repertoires (Yuan 2011) that obtain in the cross-platform behaviours that characterise contemporary media. An alternative media choice is offered, one which elaborates a partial classification of the right-wing media ecology within which TheBlaze is seen to operate. By admonishing another user to “post happy thoughts on Breitbart,” the comment author seeks to patrol the affective character of user-generated discourse on the site. Importantly, whilst there is little mention in the data of positive, congruent media, this comment explicitly focuses on other right-wing media in explicitly negative terms.
Nevertheless, the user doubts this admonishment will have any impact, suggesting the user being addressed will “continue to troll away,” a statement that delegitimates the target’s contributions to the comment thread. Furthermore, by referring to speech as “trolling” (Hardaker 2010), the comment author highlights the problematic nature of negative or uncivil contributions. This comment thus articulates a set of judgments not only around forms of participation, but also their proper place on the site as well as within the broader landscape of American conservative media. In so doing, it publicly sets out explicit claims about the partisan character of media choice. At the same time, it also recontextualises modes of commentary associated with other right-wing partisan media spaces that are seen as oppositional in the context of negotiations around support for Donald Trump.
Beck was one of the most prominent conservative media figures to publicly stand against Trump’s candidacy and nomination in 2016. The near unanimous support for Trump once he had secured the Republican Party nomination left Beck isolated:
Glenn From the day you left fox I subscribed to the Blaze and when the channel came on Dish I also supported you through that also But you have lost me now I turn it on and all I hear is Trump bashing from you Stu and Pat I donnot like Trump or love Trump but it is all I have It is a binary election only 2 choices now and I am definitely not voting for Hillary.
The audience’s varied responses to Beck’s position help to illuminate debate over the proper role of media in the political process, as well as the audience’s publicly negotiated understandings of their own role as both consumers and produsers of media discourse in the context of a hybrid media system. One of the more significant factors to consider here is the claim that Beck’s “Trump bashing” is having an impact on the user’s engagement, such that Beck’s anti-Trump stance, as a media figure speaking through the cross-platform constellation of media that is TheBlaze, is foregrounded not only as a key factor in a transformation of the user’s perception of Beck, as well as his colleagues and co-hosts, but also in a stipulated shift in their stated rituals of media use.
The tendency towards selective exposure to partisan media has been characterised as intimately bound up in economic factors that shape the business models of media firms (Bernhardt et al. 2008). In that regard, Bird (1998) more than two decades ago warned against seeing audiences as overly passive recipients of whatever journalists put in front of them, arguing instead that we should see audiences as actively engaged in shaping the media environment through their engagement with an array of content. In the context of explicitly articulated loyalty as a supporter and a subscriber (i.e., consumer/produser but also, crucially, customer who has paid for these services), statements regarding a change in media choice acquire greater significance.
One of the benefits of a qualitative analysis focusing on claims of media bias is the way in which the dynamism of such claims can be revealed. In the case of my sample, audience commentary focusing on a perceived anti-Trump bias highlights a supposed shift in Beck’s partisan stance and thus the reclassification of TheBlaze and Beck as counterattitudinal media. This final example speaks in frank terms about the sizeable shift that has taken place in the author’s alignment with Beck and his message as a reaction to Beck’s perceived anti-Trump stance:
Of course Beck is disappointed. He dedicated his whole show to defeating Trump, and said some downright horrible things about Trump … Hillary as POTUS would be the end I’m afraid. At least with Trump we have a chance. I quit listening to Beck because his Gandhi phase quickly turned into out-right HATE of Trump. It got old and so negative I couldn’t listen anymore … I think Beck trusts in gold and his political candidates more than he trusts in God. It’s really sad, because I used to be a HUGE Beck supporter. I still visit this site often and comment sometimes, but I will probably never listen to Beck again, let alone watch the Blaze channel that I have access to.
Insofar as the comment makes explicit reference to the impact that Beck’s position has had on the commenter’s viewing habits, media use here is attributed political dimensions, thereby foregrounding media choice as a mode of political action.
As TheBlaze was framed increasingly as oppositional media, this blending of consumer and political discourses in user-generated narratives around engagement with TheBlaze became a matter of growing relevance. Commentary on media choice here became a mechanism for performing alignments with perspectives on disputed forms of partisanship. In this way, the public contestation of oppositional identities became a prominent factor in shaping not only practices of media selectivity but also public understandings of the impacts of choosing to engage with particular forms of media. Media choice can in this sense be seen to be recontextualised as politically significant behaviour. However, these data also clearly demonstrate the relevance of media choice in the mediated performance of partisanship.