‘It’s all about trolling’: how far-right influencers are shaping Republican narrative
He has a platform that most politicians would envy. But Jack Posobiec is not to be found on America’s major TV networks or in its newspapers. He is among a cadre of online influencers who now shape the far right – and could help decide the Republican presidential primary race in 2024.
“Two operatives made the very same prediction, that Posobiec will matter as much to future GOP voters as Washington Post columnist George Will did to Republicans a generation ago,” political journalist David Weigel wrote in a Semafor newsletter last week.
That observation prompted Alyssa Farah Griffin, a CNN political commentator and former White House official, to tweet in response: “We’re doomed.”
Such expectations speak volumes about the breakdown of the old media order, flawed as it was, and the rise of new and often extreme voices in the digital age. It also reflects a parallel shift in the Republican party from country club to “Make America great again” populism.
Will, 81, edited the conservative National Review magazine, won a Pulitzer prize for commentary in 1977, was described by the Wall Street Journal as “perhaps the most powerful journalist in America” and quit the Republican party over Donald Trump in 2016.
Posobiec, 38, gained prominence as a pro-Trump activist during the 2016 election. He promoted bogus conspiracy theories such as “Pizzagate”, which held that Democrats were running a child sex and torture ring beneath a pizzeria in Washington. He is a senior editor at the far-right news and commentary website Human Events.
Posobiec has used Twitter – where his 2 million followers include representatives, senators and journalists – to promote Russian military intelligence operations, pushed false claims of election fraud and collaborated with white nationalists, Proud Boys and neo-Nazis, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit legal advocacy organisation.
Yet it is Posobiec and others like him who are already helping to set the narrative for the Republican presidential primary. Posobiec’s recent online activity includes crude attacks on Antifa, the New York Times’s 1619 Project and transgender rights (“Genital Gestapo”) – ready-made talking points for candidates.
Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman who belonged to the conservative Tea Party, recognises the changes of a fragmented media landscape. “Ten years ago, going on CNN and MSNBC, you had great influence,” he said. “Now not a lot of people watch any more. More people will listen to me if I go on somebody’s podcast or something. It’s a completely different world now where influencers have great say.”
But at what cost? Walsh added: “It has nothing to do with ideas. It has nothing to do with intellect. It’s all about trolling people, getting clicks and being outrageous. There’s a whole cast of characters that has sprung up over the last five to six years and they have great influence now. The Jack Posobiecs and all the rest of these guys are not fringe; they speak for a big chunk of the base.”
The growth of partisan echo chambers was evident in last year’s midterm elections as Republicans, in particular, snubbed the mainstream media in favour of rightwing outlets and often refused to debate their Democratic opponents.
And earlier this month, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the National Harbor in Maryland, the former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon loomed large, drawing crowds as he opined loudly on Real America’s Voice, a channel that is popular with the base but little known outside it.
Bannon’s War Room podcast was named the number one spreader of misinformation among political talkshows in a recent study by the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington. Yet its guests have included prominent Republicans in Congress such as Elise Stefanik and Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Leading online influencers appear united in their support for Trumpism, and rejection of the Republican establishment, but divided over the fate of the party nomination for 2024. Early shots have been fired in what could be a ferocious battle between them.
Trump sympathisers include Alex Bruesewitz, Mike Cernovich and Laura Loomer as well as a Twitter user known as “Catturd” and the former president’s own son, Don Jr. Among supporters of Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida who is expected to run, are John Cardillo and Bill Mitchell.
Another influencer, Chaya Raichik, has dined with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida (“He seems nice!”) but also disclosed that, when she was revealed to be behind a provocative Twitter account called Libs of Tik Tok, she received a call from DeSantis’s team offering her a guest house if she needed to go into hiding.
Other rightwing personalities such as Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens augment their social media presence with countless in-person appearances at conferences, on television and at university campuses. The “owning the libs” talking points that circulate in this ecosystem frequently work their way into the discourse of the conservative network Fox News.
David Litt, an author and former speechwriter for Barack Obama, said: “This is like research and development for Fox. If something gets enough traction with the online audience, then I wouldn’t be surprised if you start to see Fox hosts piggybacking on that once they think that’s where their audience is headed.”
Posobiec’s “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory had real world consequences when a man travelled to Washington and fired an assault rifle inside the relevant pizza restaurant, later receiving a four-year prison sentence. Litt said it was alarming that, despite such incidents, Republicans have welcomed far-right influencers into their “big tent” rather than condemning them.
“The threat of violence is out there and the flames are being fanned by a lot of these ‘influencers’. We wouldn’t have called David Duke an influencer back in the day. We would have been very clear about who he was and the danger that he posed to our democracy and to the society that the rest of us would like to continue to enjoy living in, regardless of which party is in charge.”
As for Will, who is approaching a half-century at the Washington Post, his column this week discussed freedom of speech and unauthorised immigration. It may not matter much to the Republican primary. Walsh, the ex-congressman, observed: “The base no longer knows who the fuck George Will is and that’s an absolute shame.”