Elon Musk has officially gone from Twitter’s most notorious troll to its commander in chief. And conservatives are gleeful that the social media platform is now more welcoming of their talking points, with little censorship or oversight.
It’s not just Musk who is creating safe spaces for conservatives online. There are a handful of conservative social media outlets vying to replace Twitter as the de facto digital public sphere including Donald Trump’s Truth Social, Jason Miller’s GETTR, and Gab, long a haven for neo-Nazis. Last month, Ye, better known as Kanye West, announced his agreement to buy Parler, giving the site a much-needed pop cultural boost.
None of this should come as a surprise. Conservatives have often been early adopters or innovators of new and emerging media.
They’ve already proven adept at innovation in digital content creation — leveraging apps such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Spotify to produce and amplify far-right video blogs, live streaming services like Right Side Broadcasting Network and podcasters like Ben Shapiro. They’ve also launched a seemingly endless array of conservative news sites, from the Daily Caller to Breitbart to Gateway Pundit.
But this surge of online content is merely the latest front in a 70-year effort by conservative activists to cultivate an alternative media system to rival mainstream media hegemony. There is no comparable left-wing counterpart. What explains the right’s fixation on media? Why do conservatives seem more interested and adept at media activism than their left and liberal opponents?
The answer lies in a series of historical battles, now mostly forgotten, which continue to structure the conservative drive toward media ownership, innovation and activism. These battles have not only shaped conservative movement strategy, but they have also situated media criticism as a core component of conservative political identity. This all stems from a desire to promote deeply unpopular ideas to a largely skeptical public.
To understand conservative antipathy toward the press, we must recall just how bleak things looked for conservative activists nearly a century ago.
The modern conservative movement began in the 1930s among businessmen who opposed Keynesian economic solutions to the Great Depression, most notably President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. Popular support for these programs, designed to mitigate the boom-bust cycle of laissez-faire capitalism and to create a social safety net for the working class, solidified throughout the Second World War. After the war, conservative activists redoubled their efforts to scale back federal intervention in the economy — but their appeals failed to resonate.