Steve Bannon Is Back at Breitbart - But Can His Page of Rage Survive an Ad Boycott?
Rightwing news site Breitbart has a new business plan. The self-described home of the “alt-right” started selling fidget spinners this week. The spinners’ centers are decorated with the florid face of its newly returned leader, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, above the hashtag #WAR.
But the media company is going to have to sell a lot of the $7.95 spinners if it wants to make up for the campaign that is destroying its advertising base.
Donald Trump and Bannon parted ways shortly after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump’s refusal to lay the blame for the violence at the feet of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. The evening of his departure, Bannon appeared at the offices of Breitbart News and led an editorial meeting, returning directly to the role he had given up to advise Trump and pledging to take down his enemies inside the White House and in the wider Republican party.
While Bannon helped Trump use the power of the internet to fire up his base, those tools have now been turned against him. His return, and the alt-right’s involvement in Charlottesville, have ignited an online campaign to force companies to pull their ads from Breitbart. It seems to be working.
Mark Irvine, senior data scientist at search marketing company WordStream, calculates that Breitbart’s ad revenue has declined by 51% since November as advertisers have fled.
As Bannon returns to Breitbart, he's going to discover that his ad revenue has decline 51% since November thanks to… https://t.co/FohPvIXm0t— Mark Irvine (@Mark Irvine) 1503491614.0
The company declined to comment but editor-in-chief Alex Marlow told the New York Times: “It’s a fight. That’s all I can really say.”
Leading the fight is an anonymous group called Sleeping Giants. Using the Twitter handle @slpng_giants and a Facebook page, for the past eight months Sleeping Giants has targeted companies whose ads have appeared on Breitbart.
Harnessing the power of its 106,000 followers, they have persuaded almost 2,600 advertisers to pull their ads, including Audi, Avis, BMW, Easyjet, NestlÃ© and the Canadian government.
Speaking anonymously, Sleeping Giants’ founder said: “You are going to have a hard time finding a lot of big companies on there now.
“The last week has been really bananas. We haven’t got a lot of sleep in the last week.”
Activists started their campaign in reaction to their perception that Breitbart was running “xenophobic, sexist and racist articles. They had a ‘black crime’ section for a while. For us it wasn’t just that they were saying these things, it is that they are couched as news. They feed into racial stereotypes and sexism. They prime the pump and use their comments section as a chance to build their following.”
Among Breitbart’s most infamous headlines:
- Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy
- World Health Organization report: trannies 49 Xs higher HIV rate
- Political correctness protects Muslim rape culture
- Science proves it: fat shaming works
- The solution to online ‘harassment’ is simple: women should log off
Most of the companies advertising on the site don’t so directly but via brokers that display their advertisements all over the web. While Sleeping Giants said they are keen to protect free speech, they argue that free speech doesn’t entitle Breitbart to make money off advertisers, especially if those advertisers are unknowingly giving money to a site whose views clash with their own policies on non-discrimination and other issues.
Kellogg’s was the first big name to react, pulling its ads last November. Breitbart hit back with a campaign to boycott Kellogg’s. “That was the dumbest move they could have made,” said the Sleeping Giants spokesman. “When you’re an advertiser, the last thing you want is some crazy blog threatening to send people after you if you decide not to do business with them.”
Remaining advertisers, including Amazon and Vodafone, are under pressure to pull their ads too. An online petition calling for Amazon to withdraw has so far attracted over 320,000 signatures. A Vodafone spokesman declined to comment specifically on Breitbart but said it actively monitored sites used for advertising and was the first company to announce a policy banning advertising on hate speech and fake news media outlets.
“Under that policy, any outlet whose predominant purpose is the communication of divisive and offensive content will be excluded from our advertising whitelists,” he said. “Conversely, if the majority of the content provided would not be categorised as hate speech or fake news, an outlet may be considered for addition to our whitelists.
“We acknowledge our responsibility to ensure our advertising budget does not fund outlets that have a negative impact on society. We also acknowledge our responsibility to protect freedom of expression and freedom of media.”
An ad boycott may not bring Breitbart to its knees, said David Folkenflik, the media correspondent at National Public Radio. One of Bannon’s first meetings after exiting the White House was with rightwing hedge-fund tycoon Robert Mercer, who has given money to Breitbart, Trump’s campaign and the Brexit campaign.
“My sense is that Bannon tends to lean into conflict, seeing it as a sign that they are doing something right and valuable,” said Folkenflik. Breitbart has wealthy backers “who see a non-financial reason for Breitbart. There is a political and agenda driven motivation for what Breitbart does.”
Since Bannon’s return, the site has already accused Trump of flip-flopping on Afghanistan, claiming he has been captured by the Washington establishment. However, it has swiped at Republican leaders on Capitol Hill and backed Trump for threatening a government shutdown in order to get funding for his border wall.
Bannon himself doesn’t seem worried about money.
“I’ve got my hands back on my weapons,” Bannon told the Weekly Standard in his first interview after his White House exit. “I built a fucking machine at Breitbart. And now I’m about to go back, knowing what I know, and we’re about to rev that machine up. And rev it up we will do.”