‘Her job is to say something terrible every day so we do all her viral marketing for her’
Marjorie Taylor Greene has mastered the art of attracting and keeping attention
Edited by Sam Thielman
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) has one priceless gift: She can attract the spotlight and hold its focus.
Politically speaking, she has few other gifts, though—certainly not discernment. In the last week alone, Greene has regurgitated 4chan disinformation claiming the Uvalde school shooter was transgender or at least gender nonconforming, predicted a future when straight cisgender people have died out in American society, and baselessly suggested that the government will punish people who eat beef cheeseburgers (instead of those grown in a “peach tree dish [sic]”) with a “zap” of some sort.
All three of those comments earned Greene news coverage or made for a viral video clip. The cheeseburger remark alone has logged more than 5.5 million views at the time of writing–and that’s just on one copy of it posted to that “Patriot Takes” Twitter account.
The media industry is familiar with attention leeches; newsrooms spent the entirety of the last administration reckoning with the one who occupied this country’s highest office. Donald Trump acted for years as a ghost editor at every newsroom's assignment desk. There was a new outrageous thing he said or did each day that reporters and pundits alike would over-analyze and skim attention from. He was a clicks and ratings machine for the nation’s media. His penchant for stoking reader-friendly outrage was so reliable it even had a name: the “Trump bump.”
But for all the public reflection that news outlets displayed after Trump left political reporters’ daily lives, some of the worst tendencies of his era have found a new avatar in the QAnon congresswoman from Georgia. They have made Greene one of the most prolific propagandists in our modern American media environment.
Greene regularly uses her position as a federal elected official to promote conspiracy theories, hate, and tribalism. The press she attracts by doing so has made her a fundraising powerhouse in the modern GOP and a highly sought-after endorsement for aspiring political figures. (I’m open to the idea that she’s considered valuable to these groups for other reasons, but they probably don’t include her policymaking clout.) From her bully pulpit, Greene embodies the most Facebook brain-poisoned tendencies of the modern GOP supporter. In our current social disorder, that’s practically cold hard cash.
The Twitter account @LOLGOP shared a take on Wednesday that caught my eye and got me thinking about Greene: “Her job is to say something terrible every day so we do all her viral marketing for her.” Later in the thread, they describe “owning the libs” to be a “constituent service in a +45 GOP district.”
While I generally agree with the takeaway that this account ultimately put forward–that the vicious outrage cycle ends up driving liberal donor money away from more winnable races with change potential–it got me thinking about something else.
Did the US media actually learn enough about itself from the Trump era?
There are social media influencers and reporters at national news outlets that churn these viral quips from Greene into bite-sized morsels of shock, humor, and outrage for liberal audiences. They run a content laundromat that takes comments Greene makes to her supporters and repackages them to her opponents. Sometimes they’re very newsworthy. Other times, they aren’t at all.
In both cases, they spread the word. Greene finds herself a regular subject of national political discourse: a beacon of a Republican Party that has fallen off the rails entirely. It would be a easier to believe the party’s base is in an advanced state of decay if Greene hadn’t amassed so much power by pandering to it.
From outward appearances, it seems Greene has embraced her role in the laundromat. Yesteryear’s troll célèbre Milo Yiannopoulos has entered her orbit, appearing at events with her and receiving credit for inviting her to speak at a white nationalist conference earlier this year. Before his public exorcism from the punditry circuit, Yiannopoulos was a curiosity of the international political press. He is by definition a publicity whore, acting with a level of shamelessness your average troll can only aspire to. Greene could hardly have adopted this strategy more thoroughly if she’d hired Yiannopoulos as a consultant.
For some news and commentary operations, Greene has replaced Trump. Every day, she serves up a new brain-sludged course for digestion. Will we laugh today? Maybe we’ll be furious tomorrow! What we can be sure of, though, is that there will be plenty of eyeballs on Greene.
The questions that come up when covering someone like Greene were ones I constantly grappled with when I worked at Right Wing Watch. And if I were to do an honest accounting of what I wrote when I was there, I did not have a perfect track record on the “amplify or don’t amplify” question. At the very least, perhaps my perspective was different when I worked there than it is today. (I will always recommend reading the Biblical text on this topic: “The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists, Antagonists, and Manipulators Online” by Whitney Phillips).
I steadily advocate for covering the fringes of society, as you might expect a political extremism researcher to. Oftentimes we learn a lot about the underbelly of organizing. Extremism reporting can serve as an effective alarm system against danger coming down the pike, too.
Early coverage of Greene had that latter tone: the woman is insane and it is awful if she wins this election. Today, a decent amount of it has shifted into the same tone that defined Trump-era coverage: “You’ll never believe this shit!” She is an elected official and by definition what she does is newsworthy. But what, if anything, is not newsworthy for a Congresswoman to say? Given her lack of committee assignments, I’d argue the answer is probably “a lot.”
I’m on a bit of an existential kick of late, if my most recent newsletter didn’t make that clear. As midterms approach, and god forbid we start to think of what 2024 will look like, it would behoove us to re-address questions like these and maybe even to audit ourselves. Even if it all seems tedious or basic.
Did we learn anything? Is what we’re doing helping? Are we part of this pernicious cycle, inviting ourselves to get dragged by the undertow? Are we prepared to swim in this contaminated sea, or are we dooming ourselves to drown beneath the next big wave?
More than a year ago, I wrote:
To deny that publications and influencers received a boost in the Trump era is nonsensical. The question before us is how we hold those who scrape the barrel accountable.
The question still stands. You could half-convincingly argue that by dedicating a newsletter to this topic, I’m participating in the cycle of content that has the potential to empower Greene and people like her. And honestly… fair enough. I think the dynamic around Greene is worth addressing, but I want to be open to criticism.
When this hits your inbox, I’ll be at the DFRLab’s 360/Open Summit conference in Brussels, Belgium. Hopefully I will be able to get a podcast out on schedule next week, but that will largely depend on how well I’m able to navigate the time zone difference and my work schedule. If things wind up somewhat delayed please don’t hate me.
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