Calculating Outrage: How Breitbart carefully crafts headlines that exploit emotion and stymie rationality

MICHAEL VADON [CC BY 2.0] / FLICKR
The far-right news site manipulates readers with outrageous headlines

From an ecological perspective, Breitbart News and President Donald Trump have enjoyed an extraordinarily healthy symbiotic relationship over the past several years.

Many people might argue that this is because “both are racist” or “both are sexist” or “both are homophobic.” With both Trump and Breitbart articles providing many questionable quotes on these matters, those arguments are certainly there to be made, but this is an oversimplification. I would instead like to focus on a more subtle aspect that is crucial to the publication’s strategy of sparking emotional or even angry reactions from readers: manipulative headlines that tell readers what to feel before even reading an article’s content.

I love reading The New York Times and BBC News, but I also expose myself to a variety of other sources so I can better understand how people across the political spectrum think about certain topics. After many months of observing Breitbart’s style, I’ve become fascinated by the site’s deeply cynical and bitter yet artfully crafted headlines. Each one seems scientifically calculated in order to maximize the reader’s emotional reaction and minimize their ability to make rational considerations before being overwhelmed by outrage or vindictiveness.

For example, Breitbart’s James Delingpole, a proud and prolific climate change skeptic, titled a recent article, “More Climate Scientists Rescued from Polar Ice: This Could be a Major Trend.” There is so much here: the headline casts doubt on the ideas of rising temperatures and melting ice and implies that needing rescue makes the climate scientists weak and unprepared. Suggesting that this is a trend gives the situation an element of farce, taking all seriousness away from the incident and from the importance of actually understanding how temperatures are impacting polar ice caps in different locations. But none of that is important when the story can be presented as a joke against climate alarmists who had it coming.

In one of Delingpole’s other articles, he disputes J.K. Rowling for announcing that Professor Dumbledore is gay with the headline, “If Professor Dumbledore is Gay, then Jaws is Vegetarian.” This headline accomplishes many negative goals — making the whole idea of gay characters seem absurd and mockingly giving the impression that Rowling just decided on a whim that Dumbledore is gay in an effort to appeal to gay rights supporters. A fan of the Potter books with homophobic inclinations might read this headline and quickly become angry at the idea of something they like being “needlessly politicized.” The inane comparison to a vegetarian Jaws makes it seem like there is absolutely no logical reason or explanation for his being gay and again reduces the conversation to a joke.

In the aftermath of the Parkland Shooting and the March for Our Lives, Breitbart has had plenty to say about guns and the students leading the protests, with headlines like “David Hogg: I’m Changing the World, but UC Schools Still Rejected Me.” This headline quotes (out of context, that is) one of the shooting survivors leading the protests in order to make him sound naive for thinking his efforts to catalyze change are meaningful as well as whiny and immature for commenting on college rejections. Hogg’s quote intends to show that college rejections mean little in comparison to the movement he and his classmates have started. Breitbart’s editors, however, are fully aware that that does not play to an audience that thinks Hogg is a paid crisis actor. Another article about the protests is headlined “Study: Only 10 percent of D.C. ‘March for Our Lives’ Protesters were Teenagers.” By playing down the inspiration of teenagers providing the impetus for a nationwide movement, Breitbart ironically contradicts the reaction of many on the right, like Tucker Carlson, who asked, “Why should [teenagers] be making my gun laws?”

There are many other headlines worth examining, such as “13-Year-Old Suspended for Drawing of Stick Figure Holding Gun,” “Planned Parenthood: We Need a Disney Princess with an Abortion,” and “Pro-Trump ‘Roseanne’ Reboot Thanks God for Making America Great Again,” but as Breitbart would say, I’ve cried enough liberal tears for one day. They might think I sound “triggered,” but I’d be surprised if they aren’t “triggered” when someone reminds them that their borderline-propaganda-manipulation-game is not that difficult to decode.

 

 

Written by: Benjamin Porter — bbporter@ucdavis.edu

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