An uncertain future for alternative online media?

Since 2015, British politics saw not only the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as a political force, but also the “rise of the alt-left British media”. These online sites, through their significant social media followings, have provided an alternative brand of left-wing news and comment. After Labour’s resounding election defeat in 2019, many will now undoubtedly expect their decline. However, alternative online media exist within a complex media system and closer inspection suggests that predictions about their imminent demise may be premature.

Alternative online media have spent years building their audience and influence. During the 2017 General Election, Buzzfeed claimed that articles by left-leaning sites including Another Angry Voice, The Canary, Evolve Politics, and Skwawkbox were being shared more than material produced by MSM sites. Our analysis of Twitter data (see fig. 1) collected during the 2019 campaign indicates that alternative online media have maintained their significant reach. During the campaign, for example, Evolve Politics content was retweeted more than 164,500 times, surpassing Guido Fawkes’ total of 154,200. Similarly, Skwawkbox and Another Angry Voice more than doubled their number of retweets from 2017.

Meanwhile, items about the election campaign on the Facebook pages of Another Angry Voice, Evolve Politics, and Skwawkbox were shared thousands of times each day. One Another Angry Voice post received over 19,000 shares (see fig. 2). As our campaign analysis demonstrated, left-leaning sites appeared to reach more users on Facebook than their right wing alternative media equivalents.

But despite their apparent reach, it is difficult to determine their impact on the outcome of either of the two previous elections. It seems unlikely that these sites will now simply disappear, although this reach may decline if those reading and supporting the left-wing sites lose enthusiasm for their particular brand of political news and comment.

In contrast to the UK’s right-leaning mainstream press, alternative online media skew predominately to the left, with the exception of Conservative WomanBreitbart London and Guido Fawkes. Faced with a UK press system that is consistently hostile towards Labour’s policies and personalities, left-leaning alternative online media function as a “self-perceived corrective”, as they seek to promote an alternative political ideology. As our earlier findings suggest, they adopt a combative tone.

In our view, the presence of these left-leaning alternative media can be understood as a dialectical reaction to a largely right-leaning press and their online influence. While Jeremy Corbyn may be emblematic of the alternative left, he is not a fundamental prerequisite for the alternative media that support a left-wing ideological position. We anticipate that these sites will now reposition in support of a new leader from the left of the party – and will continue to aggressively promote left-wing partisan politics in order to compete with right-wing alternative media competitors and newspapers.

Critiques and attacks on the MSM were a defining feature of both right and left-leaning alternative media before and during election campaign. In 2017, for example, then Evolve Politics editor Matt Turner explained that criticism of the BBC was the site’s largest driver of traffic. During the 2019 election and its aftermath, attacks on the MSM – especially the BBC – were again a significant theme. In recognition of the influence of left wing media, pundits such as Ash Sarkar from Novara Media featured prominently on broadcast media but this exposure may now be in doubt (see fig. 3). We expect alternative online media to continue attacking the MSM, blaming its general failure and political bias for Labour’s election result.

There are two main reasons we expect left-leaning alternative media to continue beyond Jeremy Corbyn’s demise as leader. First and foremost, they are still ideologically opposed to the Conservative government, the coverage of politics on mainstream media and some of the likely contenders for the leadership of the Labour Party. Secondly, they continue to attract many who are disaffected by mainstream politics.

The UK’s left-leaning alternative media must now react to the damaging election result and find a new, post-Corbyn political identity. We believe it is premature to assume they will fold any time soon, since many of the conditions that led to their creation will undoubtedly continue and even intensify under decisions made by Boris Johnson’s Conservative government. The possible abolition of the licence fee and the future of Channel 4 and the BBC, for example, will also undoubtedly attract their attention.