Metapolitical influencers are important actors in the political and societal debate in the hybrid media system. They manage to have a voice in this system by spreading their messages and building an audience through socio-technical platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. How can we study this phenomenon? In this article, we present a detailed account of the methodologies and methods we deployed while investigating how Ben Shapiro uses mainstream digital media to have a voice in the hybrid media system.
Ben Shapiro as a metapolitical influencer
Ben Shapiro presents an emblematic case of how right-wing metapolitical influencers manage to put their mark on public discourse through the use of digital media. With over 8.8 million followers on Facebook, 3.5 million followers on Instagram, and 5.3 million followers on Twitter, the political pundit has gained a sizable online following. His regular social media updates often refer to his other media endeavors, like his blog The Daily Wire, his podcast The Ben Shapiro Show, and his (book) publications. This network of media outlets has given Ben Shapiro relevancy. Not only on social media, but in the broader hybrid media system as well, e.g. through book reviews in the New York Times (Rauch, 2019), and quotes in the Los Angeles Times (Rainey, 2022).
Methodology reflects a specific perspective on the world
The way an influencer uses digital media to get a voice in the hybrid media system can be studied in many different ways. From ethnographic interviews with Shapiro’s influencers to longitudinal statistical analyses of his media presence. Each method would shine a different light on the phenomenon. The method a researcher chooses is (or should be) rooted in a methodology loaded with ontology and epistemology. Their methodology thus reflects their specific perspective on the world, and the role of humans in that world, as well as their specific perspective on how knowledge is produced (Maly, 2022). As such, the methodology makes visible and viable certain types of data and demands certain methods to collect, analyze and draw conclusions from this data. From the formulation of our research question to our concluding paragraph: methodology is the lens through which we look at the phenomenon subject to our inquiry.
The aim of this article is to offer a detailed account of the methodology we followed while investigating how Ben Shapiro uses mainstream digital media to have a voice in the hybrid media system. The article is structured as follows: first, we sketch our overarching methodology, our view on the social world in which our research is situated, based on the lectures on interaction in the hybrid media system by Dr. Ico Maly. With the overarching methodology set out, we delve into the specific concepts, analytical tools, and methods that shaped our three articles on the content, platforms, and uptake surrounding Ben Shapiro that can be found in this file.
Interaction in the hybrid media system
Our point of departure while studying the metapolitical efforts of Ben Shapiro is the hybrid media system (Chadwick, 2017). This notion highlights that different types of media (print media, television, social media, etc.) don’t just replace each other or exist alongside each other. Rather, all these different types of media are deeply intertwined in a system that evolves through interaction. As an analytical lens on social reality, the hybrid media system does two things: it helps us to break out of false dichotomies between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media or ‘online’ and ‘offline’ media, and it forces us to focus on interaction.
Methodologically speaking, this means we understand the social world in which our inquiry is situated as consisting of interactions, rather than mere actors, artifacts, and connections. This interactionist perspective also expresses itself in our understanding of specific facets or elements of reality. For example, we understand the algorithms that order and make visible content on social media as socio-technical assemblages with the relational and distributed agency (see also: Bucher, 2018). Their power lies not just in the code, the users, the programmers, the interface, or the organizations behind these algorithms. Rather, their power lies in all of these actors and even more so in the constant interaction between these actors.
This prevents us from falling into technological determinism. Taking on an interactionist perspective towards the hybrid media system, we can no longer say ‘social media does X’ or ‘the algorithm causes Y’, since these actors are always part of a larger assemblage where agency is relational and distributed. That is of course not to say this agency and power are distributed equally. One single programmer changing the inner workings of the Facebook timeline algorithm arguably has more power and agency in the assemblage than one single Facebook user.
Interaction and the attention economy
Interaction not only plays a central role in our view of social reality, but it is also vital to the attention economy that dominates the hybrid media system (Venturini, 2019). Attention has always been vital to media endeavors. If you managed to get the attention of more television viewers with a sitcom, you could sell the advertisement space in between episodes for a higher price. But as with many things, digitalization has sent this monetization of attention into overdrive. Now, attention is one of the most valuable assets in the digital world. Attention in the form of active users and use time is monetized by social media platforms in the form of audience insights that increase the price of advertisement space on the platform. And for metapolitical influencers like Ben Shapiro, attention means monetizable clicks and views on his content, which incentivizes content and communication strategies that first and foremost get people’s attention.
The methodology we take on thus offers us a lens on the social world as a hybrid media system consisting of socio-technical assemblages that are highly interactional. This point of view does not make for easy analysis. It demands close scrutiny of not just Ben Shapiro and his behavior, but also of the platforms he uses, the uptake by his audience, and - again - the interaction between input, platforms, and uptake. This demand for close scrutiny urges us to use the ethnographic case study structure that we do. A case study offers us the opportunity to properly flesh out the (inter)actions that lead Ben Shapiro to have a voice in the hybrid media system.
Mediatization is never neutral
Our main focus is on digital discourse analytical methods. We understand discourse in the sociolinguistic sense of ‘language-in-action’ (Blommaert, 2005). And, since we explicitly situate our research in the hybrid media system, we understand this action as mediatized. This has notable implications for our research since this process of mediatization is never neutral. (Social) media always shape and influence interaction, both on the input side and on the uptake side. For example: using a hashtag can be a strategic effort by an influencer (input) to contribute to a public debate and reach a larger audience (uptake). In this process algorithms become important actors with the power to produce, shape, show, hide, spread, recontextualize, and decontextualize discourse. Again, we see how the hybrid media system is highly interactive.
In the three papers in this file, the way Ben Shapiro uses mainstream digital media to gain a voice in the hybrid media system is studied from different foci, namely input, platforms, and uptake. Each article departs from the overarching methodology described above. In what follows, the specific concepts and methods used in each paper are described and motivated.
Metapolitics and Fake News
To investigate how Ben Shapiro strategically shares his metapolitical story, we apply ethnographic discourse analytical methods. First and foremost, multimodal discourse analysis (Blommaert, 2005) is our overarching method. This mode of inquiry allows us to delve into Shapiro’s input in the hybrid media system, but also its interaction with other users. Our aim is to find out how Ben Shapiro, as a new right influencer, has a voice within his political frameworks and how he distributes his messages. Moreover, we make an effort to assess whether Shapiro’s content can be considered fake news.
Our ethnographic field is situated online. More specifically, we observed Ben Shapiro’s Facebook feed during the first week of November 2022, the week leading up to the 2022 US midterm elections. We collect data by screenshotting updates by Shapiro in an effort to detect patterns in the style, form, and language throughout his Facebook postings. We then boil down his primary contents in relation to the topic of ‘the values of Americans’. Shapiro produces messages at a large scale with versatile subjects to get the attention of his audience. Such strategies play a role in interaction with the Facebook algorithm, which co-determines what is visible to whom, when, where, how, for how long, or how many times based on the present and prior interactions (Maly, 2020).
Platform affordances and quantified storytelling
Our investigation of the platforms Shapiro uses to gain a voice in the hybrid media system uses the concepts of platform affordances and quantified storytelling as analytical lenses. We follow the classic definitions of Gibson (1979) and Norman (1999) and understand platform affordances as the capacity of an actor to act in an (online) environment. We differentiate between content affordances, e.g. the ability to post photos, and social affordances, e.g. the ability to follow accounts. The concept of affordances directs us away from technological determinism and puts the relational behaviors that take place between people and technologies at the forefront of our analysis. Thus, we are encouraged to use interaction as our data, rather than solely content or metrics. And to interpret this interaction considering the (algorithmic) hybrid media logics they follow.
Through the content and social affordances on specific platforms, quantified storytelling (Georgakopoulou et al., 2020) is made possible. We understand quantification as an essential part of digital discourse, as it is through quantification that discourse becomes ordered, made visible, and made known on socio-technical platforms. This process of quantification is not neutral. Indeed, the numbers we encounter on social media are produced and constructed with specific (business) goals in mind and should be analyzed as such. According to Georgakopoulou et al. (2020), the metrics of social media shape future actions by “making [information] valuable within a certain logic of measurement”. Therefore, we should understand quantification as a form of meaning-making. In combination with the affordances of specific platforms, quantification becomes a potent ingredient for stories to tell on social media. For our analysis, this means we take a special interest in the metrics that can be found on social media.
Quantified storytelling implies storytelling across all three levels of metrics
Georgakopoulou et al. (2020), describe three types of metrics on social media: 1) content metrics – numbers as part of what the story is about; 2) interface metrics – numbers we see in social media – likes, retweets, etc.; 3) algorithmic metrics – numbers used by platforms to algorithmically organize users and content, invisible to users. Quantified storytelling implies storytelling across all three levels (Georgakopoulou et al., 2020). In our analysis, we thus examine how Ben Shapiro applies and uses quantified storytelling across all three levels to tell a metapolitical story.
For our analysis of the platforms, we source our data during a very specific ‘snapshot’ in time. On November 9th, 2022, one day after the US midterm elections, we take screenshots of Shapiro’s posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram over a time period of two hours. We specifically choose this moment because quantification becomes extra potent during an election, which revolves around polls, votes, census data, etc. The screenshots collected during this period are then subjected to a multimodal discourse analysis (Kress, 2009) in which we focussed on the ways Ben Shapiro exploits platform affordances in order to tell a quantified metapolitical story.
Algorithmic entextualization and audience labor
Digital discourse cannot be analyzed without considering the active role of non-human actors on digital platforms that contribute to the influencers’ social media presence. Algorithms have become a part of the everyday lives of social media users and their news routines and are powerful actors that have a significant impact on producing and spreading knowledge for vast audiences like Shapiro’s. This part of our research reveals that algorithmic intervention does not only affect the way the users are socialized on these digital platforms but also how they are consciously or unconsciously contributing to the spreading of misinformation and the creation of discourse.
Shapiro, as a right-wing influencer, uses the advances of algorithms to create discourse and ultimately succeeds in generating uptake through audience engagement. Algorithms and databases that collect past and present interactions of the users, function as profiling machines that create a learning environment for the followers through strategies such as the “Top Fan” badge of Facebook that is attained through a high level of interaction with a certain social media account. In this regard, the two theories of "algorithmic entextualization" (Maly, 2022) and "audience labor" (Fisher, 2015) serve as the framework for our investigation of how uptake is generated by human and non-human actors on Ben Shapiro's social media platforms – particularly Instagram and Facebook.
As our method, we employ a combination of data analysis, interviews, and live ethnography in our research to better understand the roles that algorithms and audience labor play in generating uptake in the shared content on the two platforms. Even though only four people responded to our interview requests, their responses give us insightful information for our research that we could utilize to support our two core concepts. Interviews with “Top Fans” and live ethnography on a post shared by Shapiro on November 15, 2022, on Facebook reveal that his audience has developed an "algorithmic imaginary" (Bucher, 2018), leading us to the conclusion that the followers have been algorithmically socialized (Maly, 2022).
We understand the hybrid media system as highly interactional
The information we receive from the interviews with the Instagram and Facebook followers emphasizes the importance of algorithms and databases even further by revealing the role of ‘language’. Again, by algorithmically profiling and categorizing the followers based on their previous interactions, we can observe how Shapiro adjusts his language and style according to the expectations of his followers. In this case, it was humor and anger that attracted the followers to the influencer, and it was these posts that generated more uptake than others.
Both from the interview we conducted with one of the “Top Fans'' on Facebook and the live ethnography on a Facebook post, we can distill that the followers base their arguments on the algorithmically constructed language that is engraved in the titles and captions rather than the actual news, which highlights the role of “algorithmic entextualization” and “audience labor” in generating uptake. Thus, we conclude that these strategies direct the followers to a learning environment that is algorithmically created for them where they are further encouraged to interact and contribute to the political goal of the page.
The aim of the current article was to provide a thorough description of the methodologies and methods used in our inquiry into Ben Shapiro. In the remainder of the file, you will find the results and conclusions following our analyses into three foci. The first paper focuses on the input provided by Ben Shapiro. 'Telling stories using platform affordances: an analysis on Ben Shapiro’s social media use' delves into the role of platform affordances and quantified storytelling in the interaction between Shapiro and his audience. Finally, 'Ben Shapiro’s uptake analysis: from “algorithmic entextualization” to “audience labor”' investigates the uptake of Shapiro’s messages by his audience. As a whole, this file provides insights into how Ben Shapiro uses mainstream digital media to gain a voice in the hybrid media system.
Blommaert, J. (2005). Discourse: A Critical Introduction. CAMQ.
Bucher, T. (2018). If . . . Then: Algorithmic Power and Politics. Oxford University Press.
Chadwick, A. (2017). The Hybrid Media System: Politics and Power. Oxford University Press.
Fisher, E. (2015). Class struggles in the digital frontier: audience labour theory and social media users. Information, Communication &Amp; Society, 18(9), 1108–1122.
Georgakopoulou, A., Iversen, S., & Stage, C. (2020). Quantified Storytelling: A Narrative Analysis of Metrics on Social Media. Springer Publishing.
Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Houghton Mifflin.
Kress, G. (2009). Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication: Exploring Contemporary Methods of Communication. Routledge.
Maly, I. (2020). Metapolitical New Right Influencers: The Case of Brittany Pettibone. Social Sciences, 9(7), 113.
Norman, D. A. (1999). Affordance, conventions, and design. Interactions, 6(3), 38–43.
Rainey, J. (2023, January 7). How the McCarthy stalemate is playing on Fox News. Los Angeles Times.
Venturini, T. (2019). From fake to junk news. Data Politics, 123–144.