I’m a curious person. And when it isn’t inspiring nausea or hatred, Breitbart inspires curiosity.
I’m not the first writer to delve into what makes Breitbart comment sections tick. But despite Vox’s thorough account of the controversial platform’s history and a superb New York Times feature piece on its current editor-in-chief, there isn’t much out there chronicling an outsider’s dive into Breitbart’s community. There aren’t many details on how far-right beliefs reinforce themselves on a day-to-day basis. How, for instance, today’s conservatives turn a neutral report on the Central American migrant caravan into a condemnation of “Satanist” Democrats.
People in liberal social circles “know” conservative pain points. But outside of elite journalists, virtually no online liberal commoners are willing to venture far enough to map out the ground-level thinking that makes Trump popular. So, here I am to report my first real dive into Breitbart.
How Breitbart Works
I follow a couple of conservative sources on Twitter, namely Breitbart. I do think it has found the pulse of conservative America and speaks to it extremely well. As far as reaching its target audience goes, Breitbart’s social media game is strong. Its content is even more interesting, as the opinions espoused in the content aren’t as heavy-handed as I assumed prior to taking a look at some of the articles.
Generally speaking, content writers report current events, add a mild two cents once in a while, and let their faithful readers do the rest in terms of driving conversation. As explained by Wil Hylton in the NYT feature piece, this shift away from being an explicit leading voice toward a more hands-off online lounge for the alt-right has come with Breitbart’s growing visibility. Its writers don’t need to stir the pot anymore. Sometimes, a writer will suggest nothing more than a, “Well, you know those liberals,” in response to a news update and get dozens of articles worth of passionate, war-ready comments.
Sometimes, it doesn’t even take a quip from the writer. Take for instance this recent piece on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s first absence from the bench in her 25 years as a Supreme Court Justice. The article itself is literally a subtitle and three sentences simply reporting that RBG is recovering from lung surgery to remove cancerous nodes. Not much to talk about, right?
Three hours and 1600 comments later (at the time of writing this), Breitbart’s wisp of an article has now played host to conversations about fitness to serve, possible replacements, (dis)respecting the elderly, abortion jokes, and conspiracies suggesting RBG has passed away and Democrats are biding their time, among other topics. Much of the content is in poor taste and fueled by vitriol, but alas, those are wild engagement numbers.
Like any biased political news source, comment sections consist of a lot of trash, a few brave soldiers from the other side behind enemy lines, and some thoughtful input from a minority of readers. For a deeper investigation, I will center the discussion on comments from the article titled, “Donald Trump Oval Office Address: Border Security ‘A Choice Between Right and Wrong’“.
Highest-Rated Comment + BB-brand Fact-Checking
One of the rare comments not referring to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer using juvenile nicknames. That being said, it’s hard to find the false statements in question. The awkward presentation of Schumer and Pelosi squeezed onto a podium was an obvious PR win for Republicans celebrated by BB commenters. But from the spending bills passed by Democratics to re-open government to the assertion that women and children at the border were “humanitarian challenges,” these “lies” were easily testable. My favorite stats are from the Custom and Border Protection site where it is claimed 10,572 of the 566,281 encountered migrants at the border in 2018 had criminal records. That’s less than 2 percent. Not to mention the significantly lower rate of violent crime committed by undocumented immigrants once in the States.
While Breitbart has its own fact checks, they often apply narrowed statistics to broader issues, or plainly make shit up. For instance, in a fact check of whether or not Mexican-American border security is a crisis, it is claimed that only 9 percent of asylum-seekers at the border have credible claims for asylum. The hyperlink used as a source is another Breitbart article, which again states the same fact with another hyperlink. The source this time? Correct, another Breitbart article making the claim, only this time “9 percent” has been replaced with “half” of the asylum seekers, a claim made by Jeff Sessions with a valid reference—the first one in this chain of “sources”—to the Department of Homeland Security.
Even if that fact proves a point about immigrants “gaming the system,” the truth of this matter is so muddled that a BB reader can’t step back to fathom a slightly bigger picture where the U.S. immigration system is *gasp* wildly inefficient. Not to mention the big picture, an acknowledgement of the United States’ well-documented involvement in the destabilization of the countries many migrants are coming from. And do I even dare ponder the reality that many BB readers have 20th century immigrant ancestors who were treated with the same disgust?
This decoy trail of “facts” is common on Breitbart. Somewhere, a Breitbart reader is calling me an idiot and a Breitbart editor is laughing at both of us. The specious nature of truth on BB, much like the neutral three-sentence articles, is intentional. BB writers simply do enough to get the people going.
Most Reasonable Comment
Not only is such a plainly logical response funny to see in what is otherwise heated chaos—not one of the thousands of commenters chose to respond to the comment—it’s also a sentiment shared by many hardcore anti-immigrant commenters in this article’s comment section.
One of the major debate points under this article was whether or not the government shutdown was Trump playing “3D Chess” as one reader mockingly stated, or if he was simply backed into an uncomfortable situation and is blaming opponents for things he’s responsible for. This split commenters into two camps: people who prioritized simply beating Democrats, and people who really thought border protection was a crisis, demonstrating a spectrum where many think a unified front of “PANIC. WALL NOW,” existed.
While I’m sure everyone in that debate would tell me they thought the border was an urgent issue, the varying focuses of their comments (e.g. alleged Democratic voter fraud vs. immigrants causing national moral impurity) showed different types and levels of fear and urgency.
Most Surprising Trend
The general implication that support for immigrants makes someone a fascist takes the cake here. I genuinely had no clue the two were so frequently equated, but “commie,” “socialist,” “fascist,” “marxist,” and “Satan(ist)” are all commonly used adjectives for liberals/Democrats in BB comment sections.
From the Vox story on BB’s history, I learned Andrew Breitbart himself is responsible for dubbing liberal dominance of mainstream media “cultural Marxism.” Frustration with political correctness as the driving force in media today isn’t reserved for conservatives: it pains me how much of today’s “news” is often a source simply aligning themselves with the “correct” stance on a hot-button topic, or the cookie-cutter opinion of a celebrity. However, the evocation of a 1950s-style fear of an authoritarian state is a very strange way of opposing this trend.
Conflating the immigration debate with an imaginary national debate over the fate of capitalism in the U.S.A. has too many holes to count. Not to mention, this fearful fight against the communist—and Satanist, don’t forget Satanist—Democrats makes it a MUST that all talk of Trump/Russia collusion is shut down. Everything about how Breitbart encourages and guides conservative thinking places people into very rigid, all-or-nothing positions. So, when presented with information conflicting with their viewpoint(s), a BB reader (like most of us) doubles down on their viewpoint and rejects anything that tells them otherwise. Just replace social justice-based shaming with blind hatred and you get the nature of BB comment-section debates.
There were many ways I wanted to structure this foray into Breitbart’s community. I found it impossible to focus on just one piece, so I hope this write-up was easy enough to follow.
I care about America, meaning I care about Americans. So to see fear uphold the beliefs of so many Americans hurts. To see a company create a mainstream home for fear is both intriguing and painful. Ultimately, it’s just something I want to better understand.
While Breitbart’s ecosystem isn’t known for its diversity, not every reader is the prototypical working-class White supremacist liberals might imagine. In just the Oval Office Address article alone, some commenters just hated the rich and powerful. Others were simply obsessed with the integrity of a sovereign nation’s borders. While it’s complete trash to see people tolerate racism and xenophobia in order to have their concerns heard, it’s important to note the agendas and profiles of Breitbart readers aren’t necessarily shared.
I’m not certain I’ll do another BB comment section piece again. If I do, the aim would be to identify as many commenter archetypes as possible. In the same way I write to show the complexity of race, social media, and the sporting world, I want to show people the complexity of fear and hate. Here’s to hoping it’s a successful mission. I hope this is enough to chew on for now.