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Soon after President Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2017, Breitbart appeared to be on the ropes.
BuzzFeed exposed its star writer’s ties to white nationalists. The site embarrassingly attacked accusers of alleged pedophile and failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. Onetime Trump adviser Steve Bannon stepped down after daring to question the president. Seemingly plummeting traffic numbers fueled a narrative of decline.
But Breitbart still had Facebook. And its influence on the platform, which will be key in Trump’s reelection campaign, has been massive during the impeachment fight.
Breitbart has drawn more likes, comments, and shares than CNN’s main page in each of the past three months, according to the analytics firm CrowdTangle. Users have interacted with Breitbart’s posts 20 percent more often than CNN’s primary account over that period, despite having just one-eighth the following.
“We’ve been dominating in our neck of the woods,” Breitbart Editor Alex Marlow told VICE News.
“We’ve been dominating in our neck of the woods.”
It means more reach for Breitbart’s ideas, more fuel for Breitbart’s business, and more eyeballs for Facebook’s $55 billion targeted advertising machine. The upshot is that an “overwhelmingly pro-Trump” outlet — Marlow’s words — is gobbling up an outsized portion of Americans’ mindshare as local media atrophies and more national outlets move behind paywalls.
Engagements, a rough gauge of user attention, are a key metric for Facebook. The CrowdTangle data suggest Breitbart has aptly gamed that incentive structure, offering a snapshot of how the platform shapes the broader ecosystem for news. A spokesperson for Facebook declined to comment on the dynamic.
With just 4 million followers, Breitbart’s page racked up more likes, comments, and shares since Sept. 1 (57.8 million) than The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today combined (42.6 million). It outpaced each of the broadcast news networks, MSNBC, and CNN. CNN Spokesman Matt Dornic rejected the comparison in a statement to VICE News.
“By comparing the engagement metrics of Breitbart to those of actual news outlets, you’re insinuating they produce journalism. And that’s a mistake,” Dornic said. “Breitbart produces outrage and propaganda, which will obviously evoke more passion and emotion than news and information.”
Fox News has pulled similar levers on Facebook to get an even more engagement, juicing its immensely profitable TV news business. “I know Fox News has this massive state of the art newsroom where they’re pulling in feeds from all over the country from their local affiliates,” Marlow said. “We don’t have any of that…We’re hanging with them.”
Emotion is currency on Facebook, which serves users more posts from pages the more they engage with them. But comments are particularly valuable to News Feed rankings, a spokesperson said, and Fox News and Breitbart have both prioritized them.
Brietbart’s top three Facebook posts in November were all open discussion threads with banal questions. “SHOULD REP. ADAM SCHIFF RESIGN AND BE INVESTIGATED?” one Nov. 15 post screamed. The next day, the page asked, “DO YOU STILL SUPPORT PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP AFTER THIS WEEK’S IMPEACHMENT HEARING?” It posed nearly the exact same inquiry four days later. Cue hundreds of thousands of likes, comments, and shares.
Breitbart gets a disproportionate slice of its engagement on these static images — memes — most of which don’t link back to Breitbart’s site. “It’s a bigger win if they’re going straight to the website,” Marlow said. “But we do look at it as a more holistic approach for developing the brand.”
Most media businesses need that referral traffic to drive advertising or subscription revenue. But it’s unclear whether Breitbart, which has been the target of rolling ad boycotts in response to incendiary content about immigrants and others, has the same profit motives as most media businesses. Marlow claimed he doesn’t know whether his site is in the black.
The GOP megadonor Mercer family reportedly funded Breitbart to the tune of $10 million in previous years, though their relationship with the site now is hazy. Robert Mercer said he would distance himself after Milo Yiannopoulos was exposed rubbing shoulders with neo-Nazis in 2017. A spokeswoman declined to comment on any ownership changes since that year, when it disclosed shared control by the Mercers, CEO Larry Solov, and Susie Breitbart, Andrew Breitbart’s widow.
Through it all, cratering audience numbers seemed to suggest Breitbart’s moment as the house organ of Trumpism was over. The analytics firm comScore reported that traffic to the site shrunk from nearly 23 million unique visitors in November 2016 to 5.2 million in October 2019.
But measuring media influence is notoriously difficult, and the SEC charged comScore with fraud for inflating its own numbers this year. The Amazon-owned Alexa service still ranks Breitbart as the 68th most highly trafficked website in America, larger than NBC News and The Wall Street Journal. Marlow said that it still draws about 20 million readers to its site a month, in addition to its audience on social media and SiriusXM radio.
Facebook, which has said it wants to support quality reporting and content that brings communities together, has been a big part of that reach. The company also drew widespread condemnation in October when it said it would include Breitbart as an unpaid partner in a forthcoming tab for quality news.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg essentially defended the move as a diversity hire. “I think you want to have content that represents different perspectives, but is doing so in a way that complies with the standards that we have for this,” he said.
It was an odd look given that, even aside from the scandals, much of Breitbart’s work comprises rapid-fire blogs with tabloidized headlines that gravitate toward owning the libs or stanning for the president. “The dream politician in the Breitbart world is Trump on the campaign trail in 2016,” Marlow said.
Despite the evidence showing Facebook’s deference to that worldview, Marlow argued that Big Tech is still biased against the right in its content moderation. He pointed to a Harvard study that highlighted Breitbart’s key role in making 2016 all about immigration, claiming without much in the way of evidence that Facebook tweaked its algorithm to down-rank conservative media as a result.
“There’s obviously some manipulation,” he said of the tech platforms where his site has massive clout. “I think it’s crystal clear.”
Cover image: A man holds an iPad showing the Breitbart website on November 10, 2017. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)