Credit: Screenshots from JOE Media

In October 2020, BBC cracked down on "virtue signalling" in its new social media guidelines: two words that most associate with someone backing an idea to show the world they are a good person, basically another word for grandstanding.

The broadcaster warned staff against backing campaigns or giving views on controversial policies on social media because it feared this undermines its political impartiality. It is understandable for a public broadcaster like the BBC to be concerned about breaking one of journalism's core values. But not for commercial news outlets like JOE Media, an entertainment social- and digital-first news website for young, British men.

JOE Media blurs the lines between journalism and entertainment more than most. It has amassed some 13 million followers across its various social channels, with its main JOE accounts plus specialised accounts like Football Joe and Politics Joe. It is also the publication responsible for slicing up clips of British politicians and remixing them as parodies to popular chart songs.

If news publishers want to appeal to the young crowd, they must speak in their language. JOE describes itself as "progressive-leaning" rather than taking any position on a political spectrum. But look away from the viral jokes and memes, and there is news content on offer. And virtue signalling is a large part of why that content reaches so many young people on platforms like Instagram.

The face of many of its most popular videos is Oli Dugmore, head of news at JOE Media. In a podcast with Journalism.co.uk, he defines virtue signalling as "someone sharing or saying something that indirectly speaks to a quality or characteristic that they see in themselves."

He reasons that this compels audiences to share content on social media - whether that is retweets or sharing on Instagram and Facebook - and this is critical for viewership in the digital space.

"If you're trying to get people to share your content, well why would they share it?" he asks.

"One of the most immediate and obvious reasons they will do that - and it's not the only one - is that it says something about themselves. They’re trying to communicate a characteristic about themselves."

Show me the news content

In 2019, many Brits were worried about the privatisation of the NHS post-Brexit. So Dugmore and his team hit the streets of London to ask people to guess the prices of healthcare in the USA, like for an asthma pump or calling out an ambulance. The result was a viral vox pop video that remains one of the most widely viewed and shared posts in the brand's history.

There is a specific tone that is both alarming and condemning, but also playful and expressive. It is a compelling example of "light and shade", mixing humour with serious and hard-hitting news moments.

Hitting that zeitgeist chalked up 85m views across all social platforms. Tagging Donald Trump (when he was on Twitter as the President of the US) with the pointed line "Our NHS is not for sale" was another way to sell the video.

"That, obviously, is an imminently shareable sentiment. That’s initially where it started, but all the views that followed after it are from other people sharing it, particularly from America," Dugmore explains.

He reasons that the shock and bewilderment of the contributors at the cost of private healthcare is what resonated with the viewers. It is also informative (and they did a less-successful reverse version of the video) but here were other reasons it did well though.

"It’s well-produced content, shot and edited well. It's in the language of the audience. And it’s timely; it has to be quick and relevant to what people are talking about," Dugmore says.

"If you do that as we did that day, shot it in the afternoon and published it in the morning while it was being spoken about, then it hits a chord."

Rights and wrongs

But there are stories that he feels would be wrong to treat in this way.

A completely factual or objective story, like the drug epidemic in Scotland which caused 1,339 deaths in 2020, is one where you will not see virtue signalling evident in the reporting. The article tries to understand what is causing these deaths.

But then there are also video essays, where Dugmore speaks down the lens and gives his take on a topical news event with clever social editing mixed in. Take the recent Prince Andrew scandal for example and you will find very colourful choices of language.

"That’s a place where that virtue signalling is apparent," says Dugmore. "It’s essentially an op-ed, it’s: ‘This is what I think about x'"

He expects housing to be a key topic for the JOE Media audience this year, as most young people are trying (and struggling) to get on the property ladder. With potential housing reform on the horizon from Boris Johnson's Conservative Party, Dugmore says this will be a story where virtue signalling will be deployed if, for instance, it does not live up to its promise to make housing more affordable or if the reform benefits powerful allies.

"We'd then take a line on it and say: 'This is going to make it harder for you to get on the housing ladder, this is going to make it more difficult for you and we think it’s wrong'"

The limits of virtue signalling

Cross the line and you will stray into a territory of value judgement which could lead to a backlash from your audience. When we are talking about millions of views, the potential for damage is considerable.

Viral hits like Jonathan Pie have revived satire on social media, and JOE Media have followed with a video series at the start of the pandemic called 'The Truth'. It is a tongue-in-cheek parody of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

Dugmore provides a deadpan rebuttal to make it clear it is a joke. But if you go too far with satire and humour, you risk the joke being misconstrued as a fact or seen as spreading inaccuracies and libellous claims. That is dangerous territory for a viral news operation.

New concept?

British tabloid journalism has a long history with partisanship and poking fun at politicians. Think back to when The Daily Star led a front page with a cut-out of the then senior advisor to the PM Dominic Cummings in May 2020, when he flaunted lockdown restrictions.

"I’m not a Daily Star cheerleader," jokes Dugmore. "But what they're doing there is making a massive news story fun. They're adding a joke and that tabloidese, it's a similar concept to [virtue signalling on] social. Not in terms of sensationalism, but it doesn't have to be boring."

In local journalism, the editorial line of a newspaper is to champion local causes and local heroes. The news outlet reflects its audience. Dugmore argues that JOE Media is simply doing the same; championing the causes their audience believes in (and condemning the news events which impinge on them).

"The stories we're telling are of enormous importance to people’s lives and to the direction of the country.

"It does not need to be stale, it doesn't need to be dull. Why would you remove a line of humour or a piece of entertainment, or something emotional, from the story when it means it can resonate with your audience?"

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