The digital pulpit transforms free speech in America 

CeciUrbanski

Gary Franchi. Photo courtesy of Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune, Next News Network 

After expanding to an impressive 2.2 million subscribers and 1.5 billion views on his channel Next News Network during the course of the 2016 election season, Gary Franchi quickly became one of the most influential political figures on YouTube. Franchi is the official face of Next News Network, a conservative YouTube channel established in 2012 that commentates on American politics, current events and global affairs. Franchi, who unlike most mainstream journalists, didn’t receive any formal education on his craft, explained his reason for going into news anchoring: “I had a passion for wanting to reach the American people with something; I had something to say and somebody needed to hear.”

As someone working in alternative media, Franchi competes with major news outlets to lead the narrative of current events. He explained the point in 2016 when Next News really took off. “Once I went back to my old straightforward opinionated content, that’s when the channel started growing really fast… we were beating Fox, NBC and BBC because everyone was consuming news through social media and all those outlets were not focusing on the consumable online content.” 

Franchi’s all-time most popular videos during this time included eye catching thumbnails and sensational headlines like, “WHOA! HILLARY THINKS CAMERA’S OFF…SENDS SHOCK MESSAGE TO TRUMP.”

Although these headlines are rather flashy, when paired with a high production value and clean graphics, the channel gained a lot of digital traffic. Franchi effectively utilizes both elements of virality and professionalism in his videos to reach people with his opinion.

This method of sharing political messages is not unique to Franchi. YouTubers like Ben Shapiro, Alex Jones, Ian Kochinski and Hasan Piker have also established themselves as rather influential political commentators on social media by using similar methods of virality and professionalism. 

While the rise of political influencers on social media is relatively new, political influencers are not. American history is littered with writers like Thomas Paine and activists like Martin Luther King Jr. who have used their given platforms to influence the general population. 

While it is unlikely to ever see a subscriber base transform into a major political faction, many Americans are still weary of the power that these political influencers hold. Senior Colette Lawler says “giving everyone a platform can give crazy people a platform.”

Alex Jones, a radical right wing conspiracy theorist and host of InfoWars, had a major following on both YouTube and Twitter for years leading up to his eventual removal from both platforms. Jones was notorious for spreading unsubstantiated theories about tragic events like 9/11 and the Sandy Hook shooting. Jones had an extremely large and influential platform from which he spouted extremely inflated and considerably dangerous ideas. Jones’ removal from YouTube and Twitter for misinformation caused many people to wonder how much of an impact his words could have had on the American public.

According to Dr. Eric Hansen, a professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago, “today’s influencers can have a large effect on the beliefs of a small number of individuals, but they’re not usually successful in moving the needle on mass public opinion.” Hansen reasons that “there are too many influencers, politicians, public intellectuals and other political actors inserting (often opposing) ideas into public conversation to move the public as a whole on issues.”  With such a wide pool of ideas, it’s difficult to see any particular group emerge with any real influence on the government. 

Social media has opened up the world of politics to a much wider audience. More people are sharing their political voice to the world and even more are listening to these voices. While there are concerns about who should operate these digital pulpits, social media has forever changed the way Americans talk about politics by opening the doors to a more broad public forum.

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