Amidst the debate for gun control and reformed laws that were a direct result of the 2018 Parkland shooting in the United States, a young Kent State graduate posed for her graduation photographs openly carrying an AR-10 on her college campus. Naturally, these pictures sparked heavy debates on many social media platforms and the “Kent State Gun Girl”, Kaitlin Bennett, became a central figure of the gun control debate (Eltagouri 2018). She organized open-carry rallies and protested for the right to openly carry guns on college campuses as a means of self-defense. Her polarizing personality was quickly recognized by many conservative news outlets and content creators and she became a correspondent of the YouTube channel InfoWars, a channel that is generally considered to be right-wing, sometimes even far-right, and later became the face of Liberty Hangout. Before Bennetts involvement, the subscriber count, as well as the viewership of Liberty hangout was considerably low and skyrocketed after Bennett started filming videos for the channel, with some of them getting millions of views.
The majority of Bennett’s videos show her on college campuses or political rallies, asking protestors and students questions about controversial topics, such as gun violence, abortion, LGBTQI+ issues, and other topics. Bennett’s polarizing character finds her oftentimes in debates and conflict with her interviewees and many viewers accuse her of, rather than informing people or engaging in civil discourse, gaslighting and trying to evoke a reaction that will gain her views under the guise of journalism. Her opponents are usually portrayed as uninformed, aggressive and irrational through her style of editing and provocative video titles, and while her target audience seems to be conservative Americans that share her values, Bennett attracts a large liberal audience, who mostly mocks her rhetoric, her looks, and criticize her style of journalism. In early 2020 rumors re-emerged stating that “Gun Girl” allegedly soiled her pants at a college party under the influence of alcohol (Stein 2020). These reports inspired memes and videos mocking Bennett on Twitter, YouTube, and even the short video platform TikTok. Soon after the word spread, Liberty Hangout’s YouTube comments were flooded with trolls and users mocking her for this incident.
While comments and memes discrediting Bennett are flooding her social media pages, and videos displaying students protesting her presence on college campuses are going viral second after second, this increased media attention on Bennett could also be part of her business model. Although liberal audiences do not intend to promote or support Bennett, their engagement with her still promote her videos and enable her to get a larger audience for her content. Interesting here is also, when looking at the video description of Liberty Hangout videos, after a short introduction, the first link is that to Kaitlin Bennett’s personal Patreon, a website where supporters can donate money to content creators for a variety of benefits. Seeing that the first few lines of a video description are valuable promotion space, it seems odd that, rather than sharing a link to the Liberty Hangout website, or more information regarding the video’s topic, this channel chooses to promote Bennett herself.
When looking at the Liberty Hangout YouTube channel, audiences quickly assume that it is targeted towards conservative audiences, and while that might be the case, a significant portion of her viewership does not share similar values and political ideas with Bennett. Just looking at the top comments, viral tweets, and popular TikTok videos, it is clear that many just love to “hate-watch” her, i.e. view her content with the intent to ridicule her and make memes based on her videos. While polarizing content inevitably attracts haters and splits audiences, especially in this case, viewers have to be mindful of the effects of their engagement. Some certainly do not subscribe to Kaitlin Bennett’s ideology, but their interest in what she has to say, regardless of how ridiculous individual viewers may find it, ultimately pays her bills and makes her a person of interest to the general public.
Seemingly every week a new viral sensation emerges, some of which manage to translate their meme status and online popularity into successful careers. As of now, it is unclear whether Bennett is the new poster child for conservatism and journalism prodigy or if her “incident” just makes her the internet’s current obsession that will fade into obscurity next month like so many before her. Predictions and assumptions about Bennett’s future can only be made based on those who came before her, but we can certainly investigate if her current audience is mostly made up of fans, followers, and fellow conservatives, or if her content caters more to those who are technically her “haters”.
Clearly, not every single one of Bennett’s viewers can be interrogated and questioned about their political beliefs and their reason for watching different videos, but using different tools an approximation of the composition of Kaitlin Bennett’s viewership can be extracted. Firstly, a simple look at the view counts of some of Liberty Hangout’s most popular videos, as well as the like/dislike ration can be a first indicator. Furthermore, both fans and haters are usually very vocal in their support (or non-support). Looking at the comment section could therefore also be helpful to get an estimate of whether audiences support her, or simply watch her because of her “memeabel” persona. Using the YouTube Data Tools (Rieder 2015), or more specifically the Video Info and Comments function gives a clear overview of both the basic video information, such as view counts, likes, dislikes, the total amount of comments, and others, as well as a full list of all comments of a video. Going through, and categorizing each comment into supporter, hater, and “neutral” comments would be a tedious task and due to the sheer amount of comments not manageable. Therefore two approaches to make this task easier could be applied. Either the comments are filtered and sorted through keyword searches, where a handful of keywords that target all kinds of messages could be used to categorize comments, or only a specified amount of the most recent comments are each individually categorized and used as a representation of the complete comment section. Both approaches simplify the task, but they both have their limitations and it has to be noted that those numbers are just estimates and approximations of the actual numbers of supportive and non-supportive comments based on our selected parameters.
Lastly, it also has to be noted that, while in this instance the comment section, as well as the like-dislike ratio are used as indicators of the ratio of how many fans/haters of Bennett actually view the videos, readers have to be mindful that a portion of viewers can, although watching the videos, completely refrain from interacting further, that is liking/disliking the video or commenting.
Whichever may be the case, Kaitlin Bennett doesn’t seem too concerned with the potential amount of haters that leave abusive comments, as she makes money off of her content regardless of who watches it.
Since Kaitlin Bennett’s meteoric rise is part of the Internet’s most recent history, research and statistics on this matter are scarce. Most insightful and comprehensive seem to be the statistics of Social Blade and trackalytics.com, as they offer insight into the views, subscribers and an estimate of the earnings of the Liberty Hangout YouTube channel, and the in- or decrease of Twitter followers, as well as Bennett’s appearance on Twitter Lists, respectively.
Firstly, Social Blade supports the idea that Kaitlin “Poopy Diaper Girl” Bennett’s current media presence is just due to the publication of her “incident” back in January. Around the same time last year, Liberty Hangout gained traction due to Bennett’s increased presence and media coverage surrounding her, as well as her prior affiliation with InfoWars. Kaitlin’s presence catapulted the average views of Liberty Hangout from a mere few hundred to thousands to hundred-thousands and even Millions in a short period of time in 2019. Looking at the Monthly Gained Video Views, it can be seen that in January of 2019 the views started to drastically increase, earning Liberty Hangout a maximum of over twelve million views in the month of May. after that, monthly views, as well as the Monthly Gained Subscribers slowly started to decrease up until December/January. Views in December hit a low of around 2.5 Million and the monthly gained subscribers fell under 13.000. In early January reports of Bennett’s incident at a college party were published online and caused increased coverage on her on Twitter, YouTube, and even TikTok. Within a month, monthly views almost tripled, while Liberty Hangout’s increase in subscribers more than doubled.
In addition to this, Social Blade’s estimate of the channel’s earnings ranges from 1.200$ – 19.000$ for the past thirty days (Social Blade 2020).
At the same time, this sudden spike in interest can be observed on Kaitlin Bennett’s personal Twitter account. while her follower count has been growing steadily, gaining her up to a few hundred new followers per day in the timeframe prior to her “incident”, lately her growth has been more significant with, for example, a maximum of over 33.000 new followers on February 19, 2020 according to trackalytics.com. On the same day, Bennett was added to 17 new Twitter Lists, whereas before January the number of new lists she was added to ranged from -3 to 3 (Trackalytics 2020).
Overall, public interest in Bennett re-sparked in January of 2020 after the initial hype of her InfoWars affiliation and Liberty Hangout decreased. While the increased “Memeification” of Bennett is certainly partially to blame for the increased public interest, Twitter statistics and the increase in Liberty Hangout’s monthly gained subscribers shows that not only more haters were attracted by the online ridicule, but Kaitlin Bennett was also able to gain more fans during this trying time.
Eltagouri, Marwa. 2018. “The Story behind the Viral Photo of a Kent State Graduate Posing with Her Cap — and a Rifle.” Washington Post. May 17, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2018/05/16/the-story-behind-the-viral-photo-of-a-kent-state-graduate-posing-with-her-cap-and-a-rifle/.
“Kaitlin Bennett | Twitter Statistics / Analytics | Trackalytics.” n.d. Accessed March 3, 2020. https://www.trackalytics.com/twitter/profile/kaitmarieox/.
“Liberty Hangout’s YouTube Stats (Summary Profile) – Social Blade Stats.” n.d. Accessed March 3, 2020. https://socialblade.com/youtube/channel/UCQMb7c66tJ7Si8IrWHOgAPg.
Rieder, Bernhard. 2015. YouTube Data Tools (version 1.11). https://tools.digitalmethods.net/ netvizz/youtube/.
Stein, Michelle. 2020. “Did Kaitlin Bennett Poop Her Pants? Rumors Are Swirling About the ‘Kent State Gun Girl.’” Distractify. January 2020. https://www.distractify.com/p/kaitlin-bennett-pooped-pants.