FACTS: How Conservatives Astroturf Success in Media and Entertainment
No, Ben Shapiro is not "America's favorite rapper."
Last week, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro released a rap song entitled “FACTS” with Canadian “anti-woke” rapper Tom MacDonald. Not long after “FACTS” was published, conservative media praised it for “topping the charts.” According to them, the song’s success was a sign that the general hip-hop audience was receptive to Shapiro and MacDonald’s right-wing message.
While this is the American Right’s first venture into popular music, the ostensible success of “FACTS” is yet another episode in a long-running campaign to astroturf conservative views into American culture. Backed by corporate money and bolstered by a vocal minority upset their politics are seen as distasteful, the American Right has been able to inflate their cultural contributions to give the appearance of widespread acceptance. While Shapiro’s song is part of his larger project to create conservative new-age media, the Right has traditionally focused on print media. Seeing The New York Times Best Sellers list as the determiner of popularity, conservatives have a long history of artificially inflating the book sales of their prominent figures. Not only does this enrich the author, but it enables other right-wingers to use the accolade as social proof that their ideas are taken seriously.
In 2019 Donald Trump Jr. published Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us. Within a week it was the #1 bestseller in the “hardcover nonfiction” category, a feat widely championed by the MAGA movement. Yet that wasn’t the full story.
Next to the title was a small dagger symbol, which the Times uses to mark books it believes were promoted by “institutional, special interests, group, or bulk purchases.” Unsurprisingly, the culprit was quickly discovered to be the Republican National Committee. Though the RNC denied bulk purchasing Triggered, the FEC found they had spent approximately $100,000 on preorder copies, which they gave away to donors. While the RNC’s bulk purchase wasn’t enough to put the book at the #1 spot, the contributions of at least nine other right-wing groups were enough to win the Conservative movement its coveted mantel.
While the President’s son likely got extra attention from the conservative ecosystem, this astroturfing is not an isolated practice. The list of authors who have received The New York Times’s bulk purchase dagger is interchangeable with a CPAC speaker lineup. They include:
Andrew McCarthy, and, to absolutely no surprise,
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With so much money and energy being spent on a seemingly pointless prize of the #1 Best Sellers spot, it’s worth asking the question: “Why do conservatives do this? Who cares if their shoddy writing and rap verses top the charts?”
To answer this question, it’s important to understand the conservative mindset. To many conservatives, the reason hard-right politics is considered distasteful is due to liberal control of the culture, which they believe comes from the monopolization of media and Hollywood. This was best articulated by the late conservative writer Andrew Breitbart, who famously stated “Politics is downstream from culture.” That ethos, which came to be known as The Breitbart Doctrine, has been ingrained in the minds of conservative activists. To them, if they can wrestle back control of film, television, music, and other forms of entertainment from an imagined leftist-liberal conspiracy, then Americans will stop supporting socially progressive policies, such as LGBTQ+ rights and reproductive justice. As a former apprentice of Andrew Breitbart, Ben Shapiro has led the conservative movement’s entertainment effort. (Shapiro worked for Breitbart.com until 2016.)
His media company, The Daily Wire, has evolved from a traditional political outlet that published blogs and podcasts into a multi-channel production company. In addition to his short-lived rap career, Shapiro has created documentaries, novels, scripted films, and even a children’s TV show. No matter if the subject is a Western or a rap song, Shapiro’s strategy remains the same — use key conservative figures and organizations to prop up the project, then claim it as a victory in the never-ending culture war. For example, The Daily Wire’s anti-trans “documentary,” What is a Woman?, was celebrated by conservatives for reaching nearly 170 million views on Twitter. This sounds impressive, but the shine diminishes when it is learned the site’s transphobic owner Elon Musk set the movie to play whenever a user opened the “Discover” tab. Obviously, not every user stayed around to watch the documentary, though they were counted as if they had. Shapiro’s debut feature film, Terror on the Prairie turned heads when it was advertised on a UFC broadcast, giving the appearance of legitimacy. But, it appears that was a favor to Shapiro from pro-Trump UFC President Dana White, as Terror on the Prairie grossed a laughable $13,115 at the box office and was only shown in the UAE and Russia.
Given the long history of conservative astroturfing rightwing entertainment, it will come as no surprise to learn Shapiro’s song isn’t the chart-topper he’s claiming it to be. The song did reach #1 on Apple Music, but that’s far from a representation of mass-market success. The global leader for music streaming is Spotify, which is estimated to surpass 600 million users this year, compared to Apple Music’s 112 million. As of the morning of February 5th, Shapiro was celebrating that “FACTS” still held the #2 spot on Apple Music. Yet a quick check shows that the song failed to appear on either Spotify’s Top 200 Global or American Charts. Given that “FACTS” appeared as #1 on the lesser-used Apple Music but wasn’t in the top 200 of the more popular Spotify, it’s logical to conclude the conservative world concentrated on promoting Shapiro’s song on the less-competitive platform. After all, Shapiro literally asks his followers to do that in the song.
“All my people download this, let's get a Billboard number one” — Shapiro’s closing line in “FACTS”
While the song’s appearance on the iTunes top charts turned the heads of mainstream press and musicians, closer inspection shows that Shapiro’s musical career was no less fraudulent than his other ventures into authorship and filmmaking.
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