For many people, headlines such as ‘Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy’ and ‘Political correctness protects Muslim rape culture’, would be considered hateful, insidious and factually incorrect. But for millions in the US, it’s headlines like these, and the agenda they’re pushing, that have kept them coming back to US conservative, ‘alt-right’ website Breitbart News.
Established as an aggregating site in 2005, its founder Andrew Breitbart launched the news website shortly after, with the aim of being the ‘Huffington Post of the right’. Breitbart News went on to gain considerable traction for its pro-Israel, anti-establishment and populist agenda, targeting Washington’s elite and the US mainstream media.
The site was taken over by one of its board members Stephen Bannon after Breitbart’s death in 2012. Under Bannon, the site turned further to the right, embracing white nationalism and the ‘alt-right’ movement – an alternative ideology that rejects mainstream conservatism and media.
During the US election Breitbart News was unashamedly pro-Trump and its readership kept growing. Between May and June 2016, it overtook major news outlets like CNN, the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal for levels of social media interaction with political content. Bannon was rewarded for his efforts, with Trump later naming him chief strategist in his administration.
But Breitbart News may find it difficult to replicate this success when it launches its German language edition later this year. Following the defeat of the Nazis, Germany implemented tough regulations that made hate speech a criminal act. German law includes the concept of Volksverhetzung or ‘the incitement of popular hatred’, capable of disturbing public peace, including racist agitation – exactly the type of content Breitbart News is accused of publishing.
Despite its growing popularity, the site has courted much controversy and criticism. The New York Times described it as an organization with ‘ideologically driven journalists’, producing material labelled ‘misogynist, xenophobic and racist’. The site has also been accused of homophobia, with one of its star columnists, a gay man named Milo Yiannopoulos, openly denouncing gay rights and calling for gay people ‘to go back into the closet’. Yiannopoulos has been permanently banned from Twitter for leading a racist campaign against actor Leslie Jones.
Rejection of hate speech
Recent developments in Germany suggest that Breitbart News is entering the German market at a time when the pushback against online hate speech is getting stronger.
Late in 2016, a Munich-based lawyer Chan-jo Jun lodged a complaint against Facebook, accusing it of violating German hate speech laws, supporting terrorist organisations and sedition, in a case that German prosecutors are still considering.
Jun said, ‘We are pushing for this because Facebook must comply with German law. While it’s not clear yet if Breitbart News will be based here, in which they will be subject to German jurisdiction, they may learn from what’s currently happening with Facebook.’
Two years ago, Justice Minister Heiko Maas set up a task force that included representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter to address the issue of hate speech and fake news. The government is now looking at specific laws that would force the social media sites to play a bigger role in policing the hateful and illegal content that’s shared on their sites.
Towards the end of last year, police in Berlin raided the homes of 10 people suspected of publishing offensive and hateful images and posts, directed towards refugees and immigrants. At the time, Berlin’s top security official Frank Henkel said authorities ‘won’t turn away if racism or incitement is being spread on the Internet’.
There’s also a movement among left-wing activists in Germany, who have been targeting far-right groups online and transforming their activities into donations for their causes.
Tense times in Europe
But Breitbart News, which also has plans to launch a French site, enters the European market at a tense time. The continent is currently facing a refugee crisis that has been unprecedented in the number of people fleeing war and poverty in search of a better life. Britain is preparing to divorce from the European Union after a referendum campaign dominated by fear and far right parties from France to the Netherlands are gaining in popularity.
One of the leaders of the far right movement in Germany is Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) or AfD. The party, which has called for tighter controls on immigration and has adopted an anti-Islam policy, missed the five per cent mark needed to enter parliament in the last federal elections in 2013, but made gains in regional elections last year and is set to be a big political force in September’s elections.
Director of the European Journalism Observatory Stephan Russ-Mohl said, ‘The right wing populist movement is getting stronger and it could endanger democracies across Europe. And what we are seeing is a market for half-truths and misinformation. Breitbart News may be able to get a good market share because of its experience.’
The AfD is openly hostile towards the mainstream media, banning journalists from its events – most recently from a conference it hosted for other European far right leaders in Germany. It often accuses journalists of bias and misreporting. It’s a sentiment shared by nearly half of the country’s population: a recent poll found that 44 per cent of Germans distrusted the mainstream media.
Robert Mudge, a planning editor at broadcaster and news website Deutsche Welle, said: ‘The timing is obviously no coincidence, with several crucial elections coming up this year in Europe that could see a significant political shift towards the far-right.
‘Breitbart News is tapping into a sentiment felt very keenly that the mainstream media is out of touch with the problems of ordinary Germans and do not reflect their aspirations and anxieties – hence the term “Lügenpresse” (lying press) – and are seen as part of a larger conspiracy along with the mainstream political parties.
While the hate speech laws are in place, it doesn’t mean they are being implemented to their fullest potential. ‘The obvious problem is that while we have these wonderful laws, we don’t have the police force or the justice system to follow through’, said Russ-Mohl. ‘The challenge will be how to ensure that young people aren’t influenced by a site like Breitbart News.’
As Breitbart News prepares to spread its brand of journalism across Europe, all eyes will be on the reaction of Germany, a country so determined not to repeat past mistakes.