Alternative Media, Alternative Election – Chapter Two: Alternative Media

[Back to Chapter One]

“There’s no hiring bias against women in tech, they just suck at interviews” (Yiannopoulos, 2016a). Such reads a headline on Breitbart News, an online publication that provides “an alternative source for news” (Steel, 2016). With the headline’s inflammatory reference to obvious sexist tropes, a casual reader may assume the ensuing article to be a satire piece. It is not: proceeding to quote a “new report by an interview matchmaking service” at length, the article makes the case that, “to the shock of the feminists who organized it”, the report proved “that being part of an allegedly oppressed group is actually an advantage” (Yiannopoulos, 2016a). This article is not an outlier but a part of an ongoing narrative pushed by Breitbart and similar publications, and one that is not limited to women. “Why white people seek black privilege”, reads one Breitbart headline (Shapiro, 2015). “Lesbian bridezillas bully bridal shop owner over religious beliefs”, reads another (Berry, 2014). Breitbart interprets the concept of ‘progressiveness’ as a marginalisation of the traditional order of things, and opposes it accordingly (Sorrentino, 2014). It is not hard to see the commonalities between Breitbart and GamerGate, and indeed they distinguished themselves as “the news site most in favor [sic] of GG” (Mortensen, 2016, p. 2). Breitbart went beyond the capacity of traditional reporting, however. GamerGate was a movement without focus or a sympathetic media voice, and Breitbart provided the former along with the latter. This chapter will establish Breitbart’s success as the result of such practices. While few studies currently touch on this specific relationship, remarkable similarities can be found in the relationship between alternative medicine outlets and the anti-vaccination movement. Referring to Web 2.0 theory, and using anti-vaccination examples as a frame of reference, this chapter will discuss how Breitbart successfully leveraged the GamerGate movement to their own ends.

In August 2012, two years before GG, Breitbart CEO Steven K. Bannon declared that Breitbart would rule the right-wing conversation: “We are going to be the Huffington Post of the right” (Rainey, 2012). On the same day, the Los Angeles Times published June statistics for the unique visitors of a selection of conservative-leaning websites. Breitbart stood at 1.1 million (Los Angeles Times, 2012). By January 2016, the site was reporting 17 million unique visitors per month (Farhi, 2016). From the 13th of May to the 13th of June, 2016, Breitbart was ranked first in social media interactions among all English-language publishers of political content (Duffy, 2016; see Figure 4). In under four years, their readership had grown exponentially in size and engagement.

Figure 4
Figure 4: Statistics on social media interactions for political content in May/June 2016 (Duffy, 2016)

To help understand how Breitbart was able to garner such a large and dedicated audience, this chapter focuses on the nature of Breitbart’s relationship with GamerGate. This will show, in microcosm, Breitbart’s tactics—particularly, their effective use of the internet in its current, community-based form, otherwise referred to as Web 2.0 (O’Reilly, 2005). Breitbart’s methods will be illustrated, alongside its predecessors, in the form of opportunity, motive, and means.

Opportunity

Organisations with an anti-vaccination agenda saw their break into mainstream audiences when Andrew Wakefield published a study linking vaccines with autism (Wakefield et al., 1998). This study was almost immediately contested (Rao and Andrade, 2011; Taylor et al., 1999), eventually retracted under a ruling that Wakefield had acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” (Novella, 2010), and was further refuted as “based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud” (Godlee, 2011; Deer, 2011b, 2011a). However, these developments proved ineffective in impeding the narrative instigated by Wakefield; with the aid of celebrity voices such as Jenny McCarthy, the support of natural health sites, and extensive media coverage, the anti vaxxer movement achieved—and maintains—widespread proliferation (Kata, 2012, p. 3780).

GamerGate proved to be a turning point in Breitbart’s editorial attitude towards gaming culture, particularly that of Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos. In September 2014, in what would later be described by the Anti-Defamation league (2017) as the moment he “rose to prominence”, Yiannopoulos wrote an article titled “Feminist Bullies Tearing the Video Game Industry Apart” (Yiannopoulos, 2014b). “It’s easy to mock video gamers as dorky loners in yellowing underpants”, he began, “in previous columns, I’ve done it myself. Occasionally at length.” Yiannopoulos indeed had a record of acerbic commentary on video games; four months before, he had scapegoated games in the Isla Vista killings (Yiannopoulos, 2014c). His change of heart, as he explained, was due to “an army of sociopathic feminist programmers and campaigners, abetted by achingly politically correct American tech bloggers, … terrorising the entire community” (Yiannopoulos, 2014b). The feelings of persecution that characterised GG were a perfect fit for the Breitbart sales pitch, and were directly incorporated into their message. Yiannopoulos’ article was for those he termed as “marginalised, troubled people who have found it difficult to manage their lives in mainstream society” (ibid.).

Yiannopoulos went on to write several articles on GG over the ensuing year (Yiannopoulos, 2015b, 2015a, 2014f, 2014a, 2014e, 2014d). The GG term ‘SJW’ was embraced, incorporated into the Breitbart lexicon, and conflated with the “liberal media” (Yiannopoulos, 2014a) and the “authoritarian left” (Yiannopoulos, 2015b). The culmination of this trend occurred in October 2015, when Breitbart announced a new subdivision of the site, ‘Breitbart Tech’, and promoted Yiannopoulos to ‘Technology Editor’ (Yiannopoulos and Dulis, 2015). The leading statement reads, “Technology and gaming journalism is sick, but Breitbart has the medicine”. The accompanying image (see Figure 5) depicts Yiannopoulos wielding a sword labelled ‘truth’, fighting a monster labelled ‘SJWs’, along with several other labels outlining concepts Breitbart opposes, such as the ‘wage gap myth’ and ‘diversity quotas’.

Where Wakefield’s fraudulent study stigmatised autism, GamerGate stigmatised feminism. Where alternative medicine sites took advantage of concerned parents, Breitbart took advantage of gamers that saw themselves as under attack. Both used the fear elicited by their respective events as a foundation for self-promotion.

Figure 5
Figure 6: Headline and accompanying image of a Breitbart story on harrassment (Yiannopoulos, 2016b)

Motive

Much of the driving force behind the anti-vaccination movement was in organisations that had a vested interest in discouraging mainstream medical treatment. Kata (2012, p. 3780) observes that, as well as promoting irresponsible treatment methods, “Prominent ‘natural’ health sites … have large sections with dubious information on vaccines”. By denigrating their direct competition, these sites are exercising good business practice.

The incentive for Breitbart’s pro-GamerGate stance was more direct: as an alternative media outlet, their brand of news was itself the product. Their anti-mainstream stance may have had its ideological roots in the site’s leadership (Former CEO Stephen K. Bannon described himself and Breitbart as “virulently anti-establishment” (Farhi, 2016), but their business strategy had proven strengths in its populist appeal. Weyland defines populist strategy with two applicable characteristics: Appealing to a mass of followers who “feel left out” (Weyland, 1999, p. 381), and reaching these followers “in a direct, quasi-personal manner that bypasses established intermediary organizations” (ibid.). In his latter point, the importance of Breitbart’s undermining of the mainstream media can be seen not only as good business, but a specific appeal to a target audience that identified as marginalised.

Although Weyland specifies “a personal leader” as an important part of his definition (Weyland, 1999, p. 381), Pruchnic nonetheless identifies Breitbart’s approach to news as “a populist messaging strategy” (Pruchnic, 2012, p. 239). He specifies Breitbart’s tactical use of scepticism, as well as their oppositional political rhetoric, as populist tactics (ibid.). Even without a unifying figurehead, Breitbart borrowed from populist strategy to further their financial and political goals. This extended to how they effectively used the internet in reaching their intended audience; as Pantelimon (2014) observes, “the use of new techniques and of the media is one of the defining characteristics of the new populism”.

Means

To fully explore how alternative medicine and alternative news exerted influence on their respective audiences, it is necessary to clarify the term ‘Web 2.0’. Web 2.0 was first defined by media expert Tim O’Reilly as a “a turning point for the web” in which larger corporations lost their monopoly over internet-based content, and users were empowered (O’Reilly, 2005). Throughout his clarification of the term, O’Reilly references several principles upon which Web 2.0 operates, which shall be henceforth summarised as ‘openness’, ‘user participation’, and ‘network effects’.

Breitbart, like their alternative medicine counterparts, exerted effective influence on their active audience by focusing on the principle of openness, “an increasingly valued attribute which may include a degree of distrust of authority” (Witteman and Zikmund-Fisher, 2012, p. 3736). In other words, by providing detailed and vivid information not made readily available elsewhere—such as in the mainstream news media or in government publications—they were able to evoke suspicion of their competition while promoting their own narrative. Yiannopoulos, for example, publicised a mailing list of writers for various gaming journalism outlets under the title “Exposed: The Secret Mailing List of the Gaming Journalism Elite” (Yiannopoulos, 2014f). Quoting various journalists expressing sympathy for Quinn and intent to support her work, the article “confirmed what GG saw as collusion” (Mortensen, 2016, p. 5). Breitbart worked to validate and reinforce GG’s suspicion of mainstream outlets, while building trust and dedication to their own brand. As this chapter shall make clear, this developed into an active working relationship, where Breitbart was able to mobilise their growing fanbase in the GG community.

Anti-vaxxerism thrived, and continues to thrive, in communities based on user participation. Larger anti-vaccination organisations have been shown to “actively use Web 2.0 by coordinating their presence” in popular forms of social media (Betsch et al., 2012). By making effective use of these platforms, they helped to generate more “vivid, emotionally arousing and personal” content opposing vaccination (ibid.). Such content represents the changing power dynamic that Web 2.0 has enabled; “power has shifted from doctors to patients, the legitimacy of science is questioned, and expertise is redefined” (Kata, 2012, p. 3778). Breitbart provided similarly engaging and emotional stories, the spread of which was perpetuated by the structure of popular GamerGate subcommunities.

The GG audience was especially attuned to user-participatory environments (Mortensen, 2016, p. 8). Massanari (2015, p. 1) refers to their hubs as “toxic technocultures”, and Mortensen (2016, p. 3) notes their susceptibility for being “utilized to create echo chambers and to silence opposing voices”. She gives the example of the message board 8chan, where “sexual or racist slurs were common and swearing close to mandatory” in an environment that fostered toxic attitudes (ibid., p. 9). On Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan, anecdotal evidence is upheld by a system in which “uninteresting information is supposed to scroll off” (ibid., p. 10), meaning that personal stories that support a popular agenda will remain, while corrections will swiftly disappear. Mortensen summarises the result:

“The selectively ephemeral nature of chans supports the attitudes and feelings of the members, rather than the boring or even unpleasant facts they might want to ignore, and the medium itself supports and strengthens any existing echo chamber effect in the community” (Mortensen, 2016, p. 10).

 As people have a predilection to “follow the lead of someone with whom they have more of a connection” (Witteman and Zikmund-Fisher, 2012, p. 3737), Breitbart’s promotion of the GG victimisation narrative stories was an effective method to influence opinion. By publishing anecdotes of supposed SJW persecution, they formed a relationship with their audience akin to a personal bond. The conspiratorial nature of these stories could paradoxically be taken as more authoritative due to “the inherent credibility of the ‘anti-authority’” (ibid., p.3735). According to Kata, the conspiracy theories that alternative medicine outlets helped perpetrate allowed the unification of “an amorphous group holding diverse views” under the ethos of “an opposition to vaccines” (Kata, 2012, p. 3778). In the same way, Breitbart’s oppositional and vivid storytelling was well-matched to GG’s espoused crusade against ‘SJWs’. Where with anti-vaccination stories, patients were the victims and vaccination the assailant (Betsch et al., 2012, p. 3728), with GG the same was emotionally true of gamers and feminism respectively. By providing provocative stories involving GG antagonists (Bokhari, 2016; Yiannopoulos, 2015c, 2015d, 2014d, 2014e) while also belittling and casting doubt on claims of harassment (Yiannopoulos, 2016b; see Figure 6), Breitbart tapped into a user-participatory environment that would share and support their content uncritically. Inversely, developments in the GG story that negatively impacted the movement’s credibility were simply ignored. Long after the accusations against Zoe Quinn were soundly debunked, Breitbart’s repetition of GamerGate accusations remained unchecked by facts, as is demonstrated by the opening statement to one such story on Quinn:

“A failed game designer and professional victim most famous for cheating on her boyfriend and inspiring a year-long hate campaign against video game enthusiasts …” (Yiannopoulos, 2015e)

Figure 6
Figure 6: Headline and accompanying image of a Breitbart story on harrassment (Yiannopoulos, 2016b)

Anti-vaccination proponents and sites like Breitbart were effective not only in aspects of Web 2.0 that they utilised, but also in aspects they helped impede. Such is the case with the network effects of Web 2.0, wherein information is more likely to be trustworthy when refined and aggregated by communities representing a diversity of thought (Witteman and Zikmund-Fisher, 2012, p. 3737). This was achieved through their divisive rhetoric. In the same way, the polarised nature of the vaccination debate, which alternative medicine outlets helped perpetuate, resulted in a “fragmentation” of online communities that discussed the issue, with any given community likely exhibiting a limited range of opinion (ibid.). Kata states that the anti-vaccination movement “[took] advantage of this milieu to disseminate its messages”, using tactics such as “skewing science, shifting hypotheses, censoring dissent, and attacking critics” to further discourage network effects (Kata, 2012, p. 3778). Looking at Breitbart from this perspective, we can see how their prejudiced language and bullying tactics had a sifting effect on their audience, repelling moderates while further radicalising those who remained in their echo chamber (Mortensen, 2016, p. 13).

In the polarised environment surrounding GG, Breitbart actively encouraged the GG practice of doxing people who spoke out against the movement. They worked in tandem. GG used doxing to obtain information on their critics, which Breitbart would publish along with language designed to smear the character of the dox victim. Then, the article would be circulated in the GG community. One such critic, Sarah Nyberg, describes her experience of being doxed as follows:

“I watched them, live, pore through reams of private information in an attempt to discover who I was. Being trans made me particularly vulnerable to having my private information used in a campaign to terrorize me. They found my deadname, eventually, but only by combing through the obituary of my mother” (Nyberg, 2015; see Figure 7).

Figure 7
Figure 7: Anonymous posters coordinate to dox Sarah Nyberg (Nyberg, 2015)

Using this information as well as forum posts from Nyberg’s teenage years, Yiannopoulos published a story on Breitbart titled “Leading GamerGate Critic Sarah Nyberg Claimed To Be A Pedophile [sic], Apologised For White Nationalism” (Yiannopoulos, 2015f). The article openly cited the leaks as revealing “Nyberg’s disturbing past”, spending almost 3000 words combing through the chatlogs at length. Here we see some of the more unpleasant manifestations of Breitbart’s tactics, which at times came at the expense of vulnerable individuals.

As Breitbart continued to denigrate minorities and smear Others, it garnered a fanatical audience that could be weaponized according to their will. This culminated in a situation where harassment could be directed and stoked by a mere mention on Breitbart’s website. For example, the release of the 2016 Ghostbusters film was met with a scathing review from Yiannopoulos, who used the film as a springboard to attack “the lies of third-wave feminism” (Yiannopoulos, 2016c), and singled out the character played by actress Leslie Jones as a “a black character worthy of a minstrel show” (ibid.). Shortly after, Jones began to receive racist abuse over Twitter (Silman, 2016). The Telegraph (2016) reports that Yiannopoulos (under his Twitter username, @nero, which at the time had more than 338,000 followers) helped lead this abuse. The harassment escalated when Yiannopoulos became personally involved, messaging Jones directly and retweeting pictures of fake inflammatory tweets made in her name (Silman, 2016). This incident resulted in Yiannopoulos being permanently suspended from Twitter (ibid.), but his tenure at Breitbart continued. They reported his removal as evidence of “unashamed bias” (Kew, 2016), and noted that the resulting #FreeMilo hashtag had begun to trend on Twitter (ibid.). The relationship between Breitbart and GamerGate may have been beneficial to both sides, but as the GG zeitgeist passed, Breitbart retained an uncritical audience that would voluntarily reinforce their abusive means.

The techniques discussed in this chapter represent how populist methods can be adapted by media organisations who position themselves against the establishment. It also shows how Web 2.0 principles can be manipulated to gain profit and influence while smearing political adversaries. In their closing remarks on the anti-vaccination movement, Witteman and Zikmund-Fisher offer what simultaneously serves as a poignant summary of Breitbart’s influence over GamerGate, and a proposal for how such methods may be countered:

“While there will always be a subset of people whose beliefs … are resistant to change, those who leverage the user participation, openness, and network effects of Web 2.0 to the fullest extent will be most likely to reach and convince the larger majority of people” (Witteman and Zikmund-Fisher, 2012, p. 3738).

[Chapter Three: Alternative Politics]

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