Major German companies including BMW have stopped advertising on Breitbart, the rightwing US news and opinion site that campaigned for Donald Trump and plans to launch in Europe before key elections next year.
The boycott, prompted by a social media campaign titled KeinGeldFürRechts or No Money for the Right, follows a similar decision by Kellogg’s in the US, to which Breitbart responded by urging readers to stop buying the cereal firm’s products.
Breitbart’s editor-in-chief, Alex Marlow, has confirmed it is interviewing journalists to staff new services in France and Germany which it aims to have operational in time for pivotal 2017 elections in which mainstream centre-right and centre-left parties face strong challenges from populist, hard-right rivals.
Sources close to Stephen Bannon, the former Breitbart CEO who is now Trump’s chief strategy adviser, told Reuters its objective was straightforward: “to help elect rightwing politicians”.
“There’s an underserved readership” in Europe, Marlow told the New York Times – which was why the site opened a UK operation, headed by the former Nigel Farage aide Raheem Kassam, in 2014. “It’s the same readers who had been ignored in Britain, and had been ignored in the United States.”
Media analysts said Breitbart, which was founded in 2007 and whose US audience more than doubled from 7.4 million users in September 2014 to 15.8 million this September, would face a crowded market if it went ahead with its plans to launch in Europe, but would be likely to find a ready audience.
“The border between media as an information service and media as a tool in the service of an ideology is becoming more and more blurred,” said Nathalie Pignard-Cheynel, a professor of digital journalism at the University of Neuchâtel.
“Breitbart can capitalise – it positions itself as a classic news site, but it is completely upfront about its aims, it takes full responsibility for its message. And it’s very good at social media. It worked in the US; it could work here,” she said.
Breitbart’s London bureau already produces English-language articles about France and Germany, focusing on migration, refugees, Islamic fundamentalism and social problems it says are caused by Muslim migrants, and highlighting the successes of far-right politicians from Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and France’s Front National.
Breitbart emerged as a rallying point for Trump’s angry “alt-right” supporters during the US presidential election and sees a clear opportunity in the rise across Europe of political parties promoting similar populist, nationalist, anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic and anti-establishment views.
France and Germany both hold national elections next year, with the Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, expected to advance to the presidential runoff round in France, and Germany’s AfD hoping to become parliament’s third-largest party.
Other German companies joining the boycott include Deutsche Telekom, which said it “absolutely does not tolerate discriminatory actions or statements” and its ads had not been placed intentionally on Breitbart.
The restaurant chain Vapiano also told AP Breitbart was not compatible with its values of “openness and tolerance” and it would take steps to ensure its ads no longer appeared on the site.
Companies are not always aware they are advertising on sites such as Breitbart because their ads are often placed across a large range of websites by media buyers’ automated computer systems.
But regardless of possible commercial problems caused by advertisers’ reluctance to be associated with the site, localised versions may not necessarily have an easy ride, said Arnaud Mercier, a professor of political communication at Panthéon-Assas University in Paris.
Mercier said a French Breitbart site would be competing not just with traditional publications such as the radical-right weekly Valeurs Actuelles but also with newer outlets such as atlantico.fr, an unashamedly rightwing site that nonetheless stays “within the bounds of the politically correct”.
It would also be up against the fachosphère, a flourishing network of far-right, ultra-nationalist, white identitarian and often overtly racist blogs and sites, many based abroad, such as the Islamophobic ripostelaique.com and France’s leading far-right news website fdesouche.com (the name derives from “native French”).
“These are very popular sites, with strong networks on social media,” Mercier said. “It’s a crowded field. I’m not sure how far Breitbart has done its market research. There is clearly an ideological opportunity, but I’m not convinced there’s a media opportunity.”
In Germany, Breitbart will also have to carve out a niche in an increasingly packed market of both established rightwing media outlets – newspapers and magazines such as Junge Freiheit and Compact – but also digital startups such as the “counter-jihad” blog Politically Incorrect or Tichys Einblick.
But according to far-right expert Johannes Baldauf, of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, there is room for Breitbart. He said: “None of these players have the same financial firepower as Breitbart. And AfD supporters will relish being able to link to a more ‘respectable’ forum than Compact on their Facebook feeds.”
Alexander Görlach, a journalist, entrepreneur and founder of The European magazine, said that with Germans going to the polls next year there was “a real danger Breitbart will help foster more filter bubbles, more echo chambers”.
Unlike the US, Görlach noted, Germany has an ethics board, the Presserat, which publicly reprimands outlets that fall short of agreed journalistic standards. But the board focuses only on publications that consider themselves journalistic outlets rather than “interest-led platforms”, and who sign up to the German press code.
Both the Front National and AfD have welcomed Breitbart’s promised arrival. Bannon told French website radio-londres.fr this summer he saw Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s 26-year-old niece, as a rising star, and predicted France’s 2017 elections would be “historic”.
Maréchal-Le Pen has since responded in kind, saying she would be delighted to work with Breitbart if it opened a Paris bureau. “All alternative media are generally positive,” she told Agence France-Presse. “Donald Trump is the demonstration of that … They’re among the useful tools.”
In Germany, AfD’s Heidelberg branch was similarly delighted at Breitbart’s announcement, tweeting: “Breitbart is coming to Germany. Fantastic! That’ll cause an earthquake in our stale media landscape.”