Name-Calling: Labeling the ‘Alt-Right’ in Media

Our recent election cycle witnessed the proliferation of a new term — the “alt-right,” or alternative right — that has created problems for journalists: does this name accurately reflect the group’s intent?

Research has shown the importance attached to names by which individuals and groups label themselves and others. Sociologist Howard Becker introduced the labeling theory in his book “Outsiders” (1963), in which he explained how labeling works when applied to deviant behavior. Deviance, he said, comes from rules that societies make regarding behavior; when someone breaks those rules, they are labeled “deviant.” That label, however, creates a self-fulfilling prophesy; “instead of the deviant motives leading to the deviant behavior, it is the other way around, the deviant behavior in time produces the deviant motivation.”

Similarly, names and labels matter to groups. Henri Tajfel and John Turner published “An integrative theory of intergroup conflict” (1979); this initiated social identity theory, which asserts that people strive to belong with others, creating the us/them in-groups/out-groups. For identification purposes, these give rise to social comparisons in which group members speak of themselves in positive terms and of others in negative terms. This preserves the in-group’s self-esteem.

At the intersection of self-identification and labels, however, media writers make naming choices that can elicit charges of “media bias” or “normalizing unacceptable behaviors.” An unbiased reporter, for example, would not say the Planned Parenthood argument is “pro-life” versus “pro-abortion”; that would constitute framing the issue to favor one side. Similarly, many argue that labeling teen rape as simply “boys being boys” normalizes criminal behavior.

The term “alt-right” falls in this territory. Ultra-conservative pundit Richard Spencer employed this term as early as August 2008 in “Taki’s Magazine,” and in 2010 founded the site, published by his National Policy Institute, which is “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of European people in the United States, and around the world.” The “alt-right” comprises, in part, white nationalist and anti-Semitic members; Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos outlined the movement’s membership in a March 2016 article that offered no quantifiable evidence but apparently was based on conversations with group members.

By February 2016, when white supremacists had begun speaking publicly about campaign issues, the national organizer for the Knights Party told a Washington Post reporter that with the proliferation of Trump headlines in mainstream newspapers, the candidate had “become a great outreach tool, providing separatists with an easy way to start a conversation about issues that are important to the dying white supremacist movement.” By late March 2016 people were asking whether Trump’s supporters should be called “neo-Nazis” and “white supremacists” instead of “alt-right,” which some considered a euphemism?

As the summer progressed, media attempted to define the movement. At the end of August, the people whom Washington Post reporter Caitlin Dewey referred to as “The ordinary Internet foot soldiers of the alt-right” were “attempting to explain themselves” on Twitter by using the hashtag #AltRightMeans.

The term “alt-right” entered more prominently into campaign reporting following Hillary Clinton’s Aug. 25 “alt-right speech.” James Kirkpatrick, writing for the anti-immigration, observed afterward that “What Clinton single-handedly did is give the movement the greatest publicity and legitimacy it’s had in years.” The Post’s David Weigel reported that Richard Spencer agreed, saying that: “The Alt Right as a moniker of resistance is here to stay. . . . Hillary just ensured that; there will be more and more people, with various perspectives, adopting it.”

Media’s belief that the “alt-right” was a white supremacist group received increasing support immediately after the November election. This was aided in part by data from the Southern Poverty Law Center, considered by some to be a liberal organization, which reported a rise in hate crimes, particularly against Muslims. These crimes, the SPLC said, were partly related to Trump’s influence over hate groups.

By mid-November, news outlets were reconsidering the term “alt-right.” On Nov. 14, NPR added commentary to its Ethics Handbook about ways to define the movement. On Nov. 23, the Washington Post issued guidelines about the use of the term in its reporting, and were followed on Nov. 28 when the Associated Press’ John Daniszewski issued a usage statement for the AP Stylebook, which said the term “may be used in quotes or modified as in the ‘self-described’ or ‘so-called alt-right’ in stories discussing what the movement says about itself.” The same day, the New York Times wrote about the controversy and quoted Phillip Corbett, its standards editor, as saying that while the Times did not ban the term, “Reporters are encouraged to explain what the term means rather than use it as a label.”

These media stances raise questions for journalists involved in fact-based reporting. Who rightfully determines whether the “alt-right’s” name masks its perceived or actual intentions? Does the term “alt-right,” which its members accepted for their own identity, convey the group’s ideology with sufficient accuracy? Groups in a free society usually invest time and take pride in naming themselves; the name becomes the group’s identity. As Sydney Ember reported, “Defenders of the term argue that it is an appropriate characterization of a new group for which existing definitions do not capture the full range of ideologies and prejudices.” In addition, Andrew Anglin, who writes for the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer, stated that “The alt-right is and has always been the same thing as it is right now – a white identity movement. . . . Looks like we finally have this term for ourselves. Finally.”

On the other hand, media outlets must determine whether journalists, in an attempt to convey greater accuracy, should consider whether to use different labels to describe this group. Euphemisms often mask serious problems — consider “friendly fire” or “enhanced interrogation methods” — and it is the job of news sources to disclose the real meanings of such terms. Renaming, labeling and clarifying provide more context for readers.

It remains to be seen whether labeling by reporters will create the self-fulfilling prophecy that labeling theory has already shown with issues of delinquency.

For further reading:

Becker, Howard. (1963/1997). Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. N.Y.: Free Press.

Reese, Steven D., Gandy Jr., Oscar H., and Grant, August E. (eds.). (2003). Framing Public Life: Perspectives on Media and Our Understanding of the Social World (Routledge Communication Series). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.