Misinformation from News Site Breitbart is Threat to Climate Change Action

The far-right website, Breitbart News Network, is the most viewed U.S. conservative news, opinion, and commentary website. Its vertical integration emphasizes three prominent areas: Big Government, Big Journalism, and Big Hollywood. Breitbart’s executive chairman, Steve Bannon, aligned the site so specifically toward a Trump vision of the world during the 2016 Presidential election that employees began to raise concerns about it being little more than a “fan club” for Trump. Moreover, the right-wing outlet has been accused by some as being a hate site. Now that Bannon has been announced as Trump’s chief strategist, there are fears this U.S. conservative news venue will be little more than a mouthpiece for Trump’s policies, including those detrimental to climate change actions within the Paris Agreement.

The site’s founder, Andrew Breitbart was a non–ideologically driven blogger in the early 2000s, who, according to David Carr of The New York Times, “understood in a fundamental way how discourse could be profoundly shaped by the pixels generated far outside the mainstream media he held in such low regard.”

Breitbart gained prominence by breaking news about a series of scandals involving liberal politicians, bureaucrats, and organizations and by relentlessly pushing those stories. Steve Bannon became the executive chairman of Breitbart in 2012, after Breitbart’s death, and helped adapt the anti­-Clinton book Clinton Cash into a film.

Conservative commentator and editor at Breitbart, Ben Shapiro, said, “I am absolutely appalled by what Breitbart’s become. I think Bannon has perverted Breitbart’s legacy.” The website is loathed by many liberals, moderates, and establishment Republicans who say it inflames a partisan atmosphere and misleads readers in order to escalate what are, essentially, non-issues.

Many on the right, however, see Breitbart as a corollary to mainstream media organizations.

Conservatives and progressives — and those somewhere in-between — view Breitbart stories quite differently, amplifying the discordant effect that outlets like Breitbart have on public discourse. For example, a video edited in a misleading manner in 2010 seemed to indicate that an Agriculture Department official made prejudiced remarks about a white man. Was this editing done with intentionally racist underlying motives?

The site offered exceedingly favorable coverage to the Trump campaign and was criticized for courting candidates preferable to extreme far-right followers. The site has featured headlines that many viewed as anti-­Semitic. It also failed to support a Breitbart reporter who alleged that Trump’s campaign manager assaulted her after a news conference. Editor Bannon was accused of defending the Trump campaign “as basically a stepping stone for him to get in close with the Trump campaign,” Shapiro said.

How Does Breitbart Depict & Deny Climate Change?

In 2015, Breitbart published a story called “Climate Change: The Hoax that Costs Us $4 Billion a Day.” As we dig into the story, we see several uses of language that misdirect and misinform its readers. It’s propaganda, a type of discourse that has been precisely cultivated and refined by Breitbart to support a right-wing political agenda.

  • The “climate change industry” is equated with “online shopping.” Equivalence is a logic in which difference is disregarded and, as a result, equivalences emerge illogically.  
  • The difference between the climate change industry and online shopping is explained as “no one is holding a gun to your head” to go shopping. This cliche is an existential assumption, or an assumption that, once stated, is taken to be (to “exist”) without question. It assumes that climate change action is taken without the public’s endorsement and is bad for the public.
  • With climate change action, “you get precisely nothing in return.” This is legitimation of widely-promoted right-wing perspectives that climate change is not happening. Such overt acknowledgement leads to non-evidential explanations and non-scientific justifications for why the earth’s climate has changed so rapidly.
  • Wind turbines are described as “bat-chomping, bird-slicing eco-crucifixes looming on your horizon, keeping you awake, trashing  your property values.” Such imagery and hyperbole serves as a mediating factor. It perpetuates a fossil-fuel industry that destroys aquifers, erodes the ozone, acidifies the oceans, shifts ecosystems, and threatens to human populations and property. It isolates the concept of a possible shift to alternative fuels as a social norm.
  • The reminder that “teachers (are) filling your kids’ heads with junk science propaganda” is collation, or habitual and predictable combinations of words and ideas, allowing co-concurrence patterns to be identified in a very large body of texts. This narrative about teachers reinforces efforts to increase charter schools and break unions as a means to consolidate institutional power. It also shifts the public’s focus away from the climate change issue at hand in an effort to dilute evidence.
  • Breitbart reinforces the conservative premise that we are told through “feel-bad nature documentaries about how it’s all your fault that this stuff ‘may’ soon disappear.” Yes, we fossil-fuel-loving humans are responsible for rapid climate change and accelerating biodiversity loss, which does risk human security. Major changes in the food chain, water sources, plant-based medicines, and other resources we rely on will be harder to obtain as the plants and fauna from which they are derived reduce or disappear.
  • They point to “people who benefit financially from this $1.5 trillion climate change industry” as “dodgy,” “vulture,” “bloated carcass,”  and “spurious.” The imagery of death and deviousness promotes an oppositional illusion that climate change activists, rather than multinational corporations, obtain economic and social benefits, personal gain, and preferential treatment and cooperation.

What’s the Effect of Breitbart’s Climate Change Narrative?

This type of writing is hegemony at its worst. It conceptualizes, instills, and reproduces power according to a status quo rather than on the quality of privilege being justly earned. Discourses like those within Breitbart stories organize how its readers think about climate change, what they know about the scientific evidence upon which climate change activism is based, and how they, in turn, should speak about the planet’s ecological future.

Such a set of meanings, metaphors, representations, images, stories, and statements together produce a particular version of events that disregards the enormity of climate change and its likely disastrous effects on the earth. It absolutely produces a version of climate change that is contrary to the long-term health of our planet.

Privileging one set of representations over another, discourses like those typical within the Breitbart publication tend to claim the status of truth. These discourses that work as truth statements make it difficult for many readers to identify how reality is shaped. Linked to relations of power, the Breitbart stories tend to be constructed and reinforced by those in professional positions like Bannon who hold a particular authority and, thus, create knowledge about certain subjects like climate change.

These discourses may, and must be challenged by subversive, rival, or newly emerging discourses. Our voices must ring loudly from the climate change action world.

Other Headlines from Breitbart.com

Try it yourself. Go to one of the December 2016 stories below on the Breitbart website and isolate words and phrases. Unpack their meaning in the larger contexts of a progressive philosophy. You’ll see for yourself how insidious and powerful these narratives can be.

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Photo credit: jimjarmo via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

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