Western politics are in a state of populist upheaval. This is clear in the growth and successes of populist movements in the UK, the USA, France, Austria and the Netherlands. It is not a sudden development, but the result of a slow build of resentment between ideologies. This resentment has been deliberately fuelled by online publications and communities that nurture extremism. Such publications often refer to themselves as an ‘alternative’ to the ‘mainstream’ media, defining themselves not by what they are about, but what they are against. These alternative media outlets ply their trade in demonizing the monolithic ‘Other’. They leverage misogyny, xenophobia, and other forms of prejudice under the guise of the ‘anti-establishment’. Pushing conspiracy theories, encouraging harassment, and making clever use of the medium of the internet to accomplish both, these alternative media outlets have laid the foundation for the current nature of western political discourse.
It is important to clarify that not all alternative media is of a culturally regressive nature. The term has previously been used for outlets that have provided repressed minorities a voice, and aided social movements with goals of equal treatment. This paper does not aim to belittle the accomplishments of such movements, nor does it aim to inherently condemn the anti-establishment. A key aspect of alternative media, as it is used here, is the commandeering of anti-establishment ideas as part of a populist strategy.
There are conflicting views on the definition of ‘populism’, and much study has been dedicated to the subject, most of which falls outside the scope of this dissertation. Populism is here discussed in terms of its divisive elements, namely in its division of the ‘people’ and the ‘establishment’, however defined (Ostiguy and Roberts, 2016, pp. 25–26; Pantelimon, 2014; Touraine, 1988, p. 117).
The purpose of this paper is to outline and explore the tactics of self-proclaimed alternative media, the personal cost of these tactics, and their contribution to the increasingly polarised western political environment. For such a far-reaching subject, it is necessary to narrow the focus of study to significant exemplars. Among these, the case of Breitbart News’ ties to the Trump presidency is particularly worthy of examination. ‘Breitbart News’ (or Breitbart) has had an unprecedented level of influence in the Trump White House. Their CEO was recruited onto the Trump campaign team, attained leadership among White House staff and, for a time, stood on the National Security Council. Their largest stakeholder also played an instrumental role in the Trump campaign. Their reporting has, allegedly, directly influenced presidential actions.
This is of concern, as Breitbart is a news outlet with an openly hostile editorial tone towards the mainstream press, women, and minorities, and which is lauded by avowed white supremacists and neo-Nazis. It has a large and dedicated audience—not in spite of the previously stated facts, but in part because of them. Breitbart combines populist strategy with an intimate understanding of how that strategy applies to the community-based structure of the internet. Their success is partially due to their manipulation of reactionary and conspiratorial movements, such as the one that emerged from the ‘GamerGate’ (or GG) controversy in 2014. Their methods are not without precedent; for example, remarkable similarities can be seen in anti-science, anti-intellectual, ‘natural medicine’ organisations that perpetuated the ‘anti-vaccination’ (or anti-vaxxer) movement.
Even before considering the cumulative effect of similar publications, the emergence of Breitbart as a significant political force in the United States is of worldwide concern. Only in understanding the methods of alternative media will it be possible to counter their negative influence. Therefore, this dissertation combines the study of several academic papers on GamerGate with existing studies on the anti-vaxxer movement, Web 2.0 theory, and studies of populism. Additionally, the paper includes several excerpts from Breitbart stories, to demonstrate populist techniques manifest in the publication’s editorial style. The dissertation is also a study of the reported words and actions of key individuals with connections to Breitbart and the Trump presidency. This research, considered together, provides a through-line in the growth of one of the most influential outlets in current USA politics.
By applying a populist business model to online reporting, Breitbart has helped to polarise western political discourse. This dissertation shows that their influence can be countered by likewise understanding and leveraging the community-based power of the modern internet.
The dissertation is structured as follows:
The first chapter outlines the circumstances of GamerGate, focusing on aspects of the movement that put its members at odds with the mainstream media. The chapter then details how the conflict escalated, leaving GG members susceptible to Breitbart’s influence.
The second chapter establishes Breitbart’s similarity to GG, and its rapid growth in readership and audience engagement. Then, it discusses Breitbart’s audience-building methods, using their relationship with GG as an example, the anti-vaxxer movement as a point of comparison, and Web 2.0 as a theory base.
The third chapter examines Breitbart’s relationship with the ‘Alt Right’, a fringe political movement that contains white supremacists and neo-Nazis, which has risen to prominence in recent years. Detailing the Alt Right connections of two key Breitbart figures, the chapter will show how Breitbart used populist principles to further radicalise their audience.
The fourth chapter shows the financial and interpersonal connections between Breitbart and Donald J. Trump. After examining the populist strategy of these parties in the 2016 American presidential election, the chapter concludes with an overview of the actions taken so far by the Trump presidency, the elevation of Breitbart as a publication, and the influence of Breitbart and related parties in the White House.