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Strange Bedfellows and Proxy Wars

Summary:
Having been focused on our investment narrative research program, we have been a bit less constant in our published examinations of Fiat News. It has been a while, however, since we have seen a story in which perspectives do not fall along the dominant axis – the political left and political right, in the US – of the present widening gyre. The Julian Assange arrest is exactly that kind of story. Truth be told, I’m not even sure what *I* think, so I’m not sure if I could tell you how to think about this issue even if I wanted to. But I will do my best to tell you how news outlets have been doing exactly that since the arrest of Julian Assange. Our analysis considers English-language articles published on 4/11 and 4/12. We first present the Quid network of this coverage, which

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Having been focused on our investment narrative research program, we have been a bit less constant in our published examinations of Fiat News. It has been a while, however, since we have seen a story in which perspectives do not fall along the dominant axis – the political left and political right, in the US – of the present widening gyre. The Julian Assange arrest is exactly that kind of story.

Truth be told, I’m not even sure what *I* think, so I’m not sure if I could tell you how to think about this issue even if I wanted to. But I will do my best to tell you how news outlets have been doing exactly that since the arrest of Julian Assange. Our analysis considers English-language articles published on 4/11 and 4/12. We first present the Quid network of this coverage, which relates the similarity of all of the articles by the language they use:

Strange Bedfellows and Proxy Wars
Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

What do I see?

Unusually High Fiat News Coverage: Articles which use language from our list of “tells of Fiat News”, or news which may be factual but includes language that seeks to influence how the reader thinks about an issue, account for nearly half of all article output, well above the 30% level we see as a baseline from major wire services. US media coverage exceeds 50%. The articles from the network we’ve flagged as potential Fiat News can be seen visually below.

Strange Bedfellows and Proxy Wars
Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Heavy Explainer Activity in US Media: Part of the reason for the high Fiat News level is that a massive proportion of the US media output on Assange’s arrest has taken the form of “explainer” pieces that include “here’s why” and “what you need to know” language that is bluntly indicative of Fiat News. To some extent that is to be expected – these are the early days of an update to a story that has been dormant for some time. Still, the judicious reader will recognize that this presents a powerful opportunity for less principled journalists to frame their opinions in pieces that claim to be ‘news.’ The graphic below represents our identification of the articles that are performing “explainer” functions.

Strange Bedfellows and Proxy Wars
Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

A Generally Assange-Supportive Media in the US: Despite the more hawkish tone adopted by most US politicians, the language used by US media in most articles with opinion-expressive language has, in fact, been most similar to Snowden’s own “dark moment” language, which referred to the implications of Assange’s arrest on the freedom of journalism. Here are three of the Top 10 most influential and similar articles to the overall network.

A Generally Government Statement-Focused Media in the UK: The southwest quadrant of the graphic above is dominated by UK-based media reports which expend very little ink on the charges, detention, arrest procedures, asylum withdrawal or WikiLeaks’ past activities. They are dominated and made similar to one another by thorough inclusion of remarks from the Home Secretary (“Rightly Facing Justice”), Metropolitan Police and President of Ecuador (“Aggressive and discourteous behavior”), most of which are absent or limited outside of UK media.

Opportunistic Related-Issue Coverage: Right now, most coverage of the Assange issue, however, is being used as a proxy war for other matters. The bottom clusters on the map are coverage of the internal Ecuadorian politics of the withdrawal of Assange’s asylum. One of the largest and most highly connected clusters is the blueish gray cluster in the upper-right, which are articles referring almost exclusively to President Trump and his prior statements on WikiLeaks. A surprisingly large subset of coverage in the UK that did not simply print statements from the Home Secretary instead covered the views of Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott (upper left).

Strange Bedfellows and Hypocrisy Narratives: But for WikiLeaks’s Clinton email involvement, coverage of the issue in the US would probably be much simpler. Instead, many usual law-and-order and national security hawks in office or in pundit seats have more favorable views of Assange, and many erstwhile free speech and press freedom advocates have soured. As the narratives here evolve, I expect the issue to fade somewhat from the news, but when it is resurrected, I suspect that it will probably be in the service of ‘gotcha’ games that align more closely with the usual battle lines of the widening gyre.

In short, my strong counsel to anyone who wants to learn more about the Assange case is to be very cautious about what they read. More than ever, the most powerful question we can ask – regardless of our perspective on an issue like this – is Why Am I Reading This Now?

Rusty Guinn
Executive Vice President of Asset Management, Salient. Rusty Guinn is the executive vice president of asset management at Salient. He oversees Salient’s retail and institutional asset management business, including investment teams, products, and strategy. Rusty shares his perspective and experience as an investor on the Epsilon Theory website.

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