Outrage As A Business Model: How Ben Shapiro Is Using Facebook To Build An Empire
In 2021, Ben Shapiro rules Facebook.
The conservative podcast host and author's personal Facebook page has more followers than The Washington Post, and he drives an engagement machine unparalleled by anything else on the the world's biggest social networking site.
An NPR analysis of social media data found that over the past year, stories published by the site Shapiro founded, The Daily Wire, received more likes, shares and comments on Facebook than any other news publisher by a wide margin.
Even legacy news organizations that have broken major stories or produced groundbreaking investigative work don't come anywhere close.
Daily Wire articles with headlines like "BOOK REVIEW: Proof That Wokeness Is Projection By Nervous, Racist White Women Who Can't Talk To Minorities Without Elaborate Codes" regularly garner tens of thousands of shares for the site, and Shapiro is turning that Facebook reach into a rapidly expanding, cost-efficient media empire — one that experts worry may be furthering polarization in the U.S.
"There's a demand amongst certain subsets of the public for outrage politics," said Jaime Settle, the director of the Social Networks and Political Psychology Lab at The College of William & Mary in Virginia. "This happens on both the left and the right. But the people who do this on the right have just found a lot more successful ways of doing it."
The Daily Wire did not respond to interview requests from NPR for this story.
The site produces very little original reporting, but instead mostly repackages journalism from traditional news organizations with a conservative slant.
That alone wouldn't be noteworthy; the circle of life online means information is written and rewritten in a seemingly infinite loop.
But The Daily Wire has turned anger into an art form and recycled content into a business model.
In May, The Daily Wire generated more Facebook engagement on its articles than The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News and CNN combined.
Other conservative outlets like The Blaze, Breitbart News and The Western Journal that publish aggregated and opinion content aimed at invoking outrage have also generally been more successful at generating engagement than legacy news outlets over the past year, according to NPR's analysis, which used data compiled by the media intelligence company NewsWhip.
The success of these outlets on Facebook may also undermine conservatives' oft-repeated claims that the social media network has an anti-conservative bias.
Tracking the amount of engagement a post or outlet gets on Facebook is not the same thing as tracking the number of people the content actually reaches through the platform.
In October, Facebook released data showing that the sort of conservative clickbait that performs well in engagement metrics was not actually being seen by as many people as articles from the more mainstream news outlets. But it's not clear that that holds true this year.
The New York Times reported last week that Facebook tinkered with the idea of a tool that would make reach data public in addition to engagement data, but scrapped it after it also showed false and misleading stories rising to the top of that data.
A Facebook spokesperson did not return a request to provide reach data or comment for this story.
Regardless, The Daily Wire is clearly successful. The company is growing and profitable, according to its CEO Jeremy Boreing, who told Axios earlier this year that the company plans to expand more into entertainment, and further build out The Daily Wire's smartphone app.
"As we grow, and our tech becomes more proprietary, we can provide additional infrastructure for conservatives on the internet," Boreing said.
While other media publications have seen their engagement numbers on Facebook fall off this year, The Daily Wire has stayed fairly constant, according to NPR's analysis.
"I'm depressed by it, but I'm not that surprised," said Settle. "This has everything to do with the psychology of news consumers and the broader issues with polarization in American culture."
'We're opinionated, we're noisy, and we're having a good time'
But as Settle explains, by only covering specific stories that bolster the conservative agenda (like negative stories about socialist countries, and polarizing stories about race and sexuality issues) and only including certain facts, readers still come away from The Daily Wire's content with the impression that Republican politicians can do little wrong and cancel culture is among the nation's greatest threats.
An NPR review of stories on The Daily Wire about the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two months found numerous stories about potential side effects from COVID vaccines, but none that portrayed the scientifically demonstrated efficacy of the vaccines or which focused explicitly on the hesitancy that has slowed the U.S. rollout.
Often the site's headlines seem like a conglomeration of conservative buzzwords: "CNN Medical Expert Urges We Must Make Life 'Hard' For Unvaccinated, Test Them Twice-Weekly" and "DeSantis Team Offers 'Don't Fauci My Florida' T-Shirt, Triggers Leftists."
"They tend to not provide very much context for the information that they are providing," said Settle. "If you've stripped enough context away, any piece of truth can become a piece of misinformation."
Publicly the site does not purport to be a traditional news source. On its 'About' page, the site declares, "The Daily Wire does not claim to be without bias," and goes on to say, "We're opinionated, we're noisy, and we're having a good time."
It's not clear that the millions of people engaging with the site's news stories every month recognize that. The Daily Wire's content looks no different in Facebook's newsfeed than an article from a local newspaper, making it potentially difficult to distinguish between more and less reliable or biased information sources.
"This is about what we end up consuming inadvertently," said Settle. "Engagement is now serving as a credibility proxy in a way that we never had with traditional forms of news."
News as entertainment
That credibility phenomena is something Penn State political science professor Kevin Munger writes about in his research on clickbait.
The main reason people want to consume political news, Munger says, has very little to do with knowing who to vote for every four years.
"If that's all you needed to do, you really wouldn't have to consume very much news at all," Munger said in an interview with NPR. "For most people, they're doing it for some combination of entertainment purposes and wanting to display their knowledge to their social group."
That means people want to consume the news that other people in their group consume and trust, and trust in mainstream news has dwindled in recent years among conservatives.
A recent Pew study found that roughly 70% of Republicans said news organizations don't care about the people they report on, and 56% said they hurt democracy.
That opens the door for less-established conservative websites and personalities to siphon off an ideologically minded audience.
Monica Stephens, a social media expert at the University of Buffalo, said the shrinking number of local news sources nationwide also helps a site like The Daily Wire.
People have shifted over the past two decades, she says, from getting information based on where they live to getting information tailored to their ideology.
"You're more likely to read the same news as somebody who lives a thousand miles away from you, but holds the same perspective, than share news and share information with your next-door neighbor," said Stephens.
In practice, that means a society with more division and conflict.
Stephens mentioned the battles going on in school boards and town halls across the country over critical race theory and how history is taught and represented.
In the first two weeks of July, The Daily Wire published at least 25 articles related to critical race theory.
Deen Freelon, a communications professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, says Shapiro also taps into people's desire to consume information that doesn't cause "cognitive dissonance" or interfere with their pre-existing biases.
"Traditional media would set the agenda, but not necessarily tell people what to think," said Freelon. "Ben Shapiro is sort of cornering both aspects: telling [people] what to think about, and secondly, telling them what their opinions should be about those particular topics."
An 'intellectual sheen'
In the years since he left Breitbart News, Shapiro has carved out a rare niche within the conservative media world. The graduate of Harvard Law School taps into many of the same culture war themes that former President Donald Trump played into while also disagreeing with Trump, a feat he's managed without becoming a target of the former president's ire.
Shapiro has also publicly denounced the alt-right and other people in Trump's orbit, like Steve Bannon, as well as the conspiracy theory that Trump is the rightful winner of the 2020 election.
"Last week, the Capitol was breached by a group of fringe Trump supporters who had bought into a series of lies," Shapiro wrote shortly after the violence on Jan. 6.
But in the same column, he quickly turned his attention back to Democrats, and their support of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests last summer which many conservatives have falsely sought to paint broadly as riots. He's been widely condemned for anti-LGBT comments.
"I'm not going to go along with the general societal willingness to rewrite basic facets of human nature and human biology and, frankly, mammalian biology in order to suggest that a delusion is true," Shapiro said, at an event at Stanford University in 2019.
Judd Legum, a former Democratic campaign operative who founded ThinkProgress.com, now writes a newsletter called Popular Information which focused a recent edition on The Daily Wire's Facebook success.
He says Shapiro takes many "red meat culture war issues" that might seem offensive at first glance, but gives them "an intellectual sheen."
"He's able to make these concepts seem as enticing as possible and make them not seem crazy," Legum told NPR.
A zero-sum game
The Daily Wire's success isn't just amplified by the shrinking local news market, it may be contributing to the demise of local news as well.
Legum and his cowriter Tesnim Zekeria analyzed 70 of The Daily Wire's top stories on Facebook in May and June and found that almost all of them were regurgitations of another outlet's reporting.
"For this minimal effort, The Daily Wire is rewarded with massive engagement on Facebook while the source of the journalism, quite often a local media outlet, gets a tiny fraction of engagement," Legum and Zekaria wrote.
Legum mentioned a May 20 Chicago Tribune article as an example.
The original story was written by the Tribune's Chicago police beat reporter and it received 870 engagements on Facebook.
When The Daily Wire published its version however, which drew from both the Tribune and the Chicago CBS affiliate's stories, it received more than 350,000 engagements on Facebook. Each quote in the piece was attributed to a local affiliate, and as Legum noted, The Daily Wire's headline used a quote out of context to spice up the story.
"The Chicago Tribune has to pay for this beat reporter, they have to do the work, they have to attend the meeting, they have to have sources," said Legum. "The Daily Wire doesn't do any of that and they're getting pretty much all of the traffic and the benefits from Facebook."
Legum's previous reporting also revealed how the company operates a number of large Facebook pages that don't obviously appear connected to The Daily Wire at first glance, with titles like "Conservative News" and "Don't Mess With America," but which exist only to promote Daily Wire content.
Facebook struggled internally over how to handle that page coordination, according to reporting by The New York Times last year. One employee told The Times that Facebook worried "taking action against a prominent right-wing network could set off a Republican backlash."
Publicly however, there has been no indication that Facebook views The Daily Wire's engagement success to be a problem.
Freelon, the UNC professor, says Shapiro has done a brilliant job threading the needle of engaging much of the Republican base with polarizing content while not running afoul of the social media platforms.
"Regardless of whatever you think of Ben Shapiro's ideological leanings," Freelon says, "it's hard to deny that he's doing what he's doing well."
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