Devin Mitter, Vlad Michajlov, Roberto Tienda, Alberto Di Rosa
Wednesday, April 8, 2020 – Amsterdam, Netherlands
If you asked the average American male, what his favorite thing in the world is, he would probably answer fast cars, football, or blonde women with big tits. Depending on where you ask, some might even say guns. So the idea of a rifle slinging, busty, blonde college student certainly excites many men (and some women). The girl in question, Kaitlin Bennett, surely knows how to capitalize on her assets and managed to build a social media career off of being a female supporter of the second amendment, as well as other “traditional” American values.
In the wake of the debate for gun control that was a result of the 2018 Parkland shooting in the united states, a young college graduate uploaded pictures of her graduation, carrying an AR-10 rifle on the campus of Kent State College. Naturally, these pictures sparked heavy controversy on social media, and quickly, “Kent State Gun Girl” Kaitlin Bennett became an object of public scrutiny, being criticized for her lack of empathy for the survivors of school shootings and the families of victims. At the same time, supporters of the second amendment praised Bennett’s activism and her protests for open carry rights on United States college campuses.
Her polarizing personality was quickly recognized by conservative news outlets and content creators, and so she became a correspondent for InfoWars, a right-wing YouTube channel, until it was shut down. Bennett’s presence on this channel resulted in a drastic increase in subscribers and viewers, and her overall involvement in InfoWars could be considered a massive success. Later, Kaitlin Bennett went on to become a correspondent and content creator for Liberty Hangout, an organization targeted towards conservative students on college campuses. Bennett and her now-husband Justin Moldow quickly became the primary creators on this channel.
Before their involvement and success of Bennett’s graduation pictures, Liberty Hangout averaged around a few thousand views per video, with little to no engagement. Quickly after Kaitlin Bennett appeared on videos, subscriber- and view-counts skyrocketed with millions of monthly viewers and thousands of new subscribers every month. The general premise of her videos is always the same. Bennett is filmed on college campuses interviewing students on controversial topics, like abortion, gun rights, LGBTQIA+ issues, and Trans rights. Her 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 (yes, that means “shit”… she shit her pants) at a college party under the influence of alcohol. 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, and while their intention is probably to discredit Bennett and her entourage and expose them, this incident specifically put her in the media spotlight again. This duality, Kaitlin Bennett moving between viral meme and serious journalistic prodigy and poster child of right-wing journalism could also be part of Liberty Hangout’s business model, as it seems to be promoting Bennett as a personality, rather than actual content and ideologies.
When we look 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.
Clearly, not every single viewer can be interrogated on their political belief and their reasons for watching Liberty Hangout, but using a plethora of tools, a rough approximation of who makes up Bennett’s viewership can be made.
Firstly, a simple look at the view-counts, as well as the like/dislike ratio of all the videos uploaded to Liberty Hangout until February 2020 (by “all” we mean those that do not have these features deactivated) can give a good first impression and offers a basis for further research. In addition to our own research, we also consulted SocialBlade and Trackalytics, websites that visualize engagement on YouTube and Twitter respectively, drawing up the overall views and subscribers gained in a month, the views and subscribers gained in a day, and the overall rating of the YouTube channel, or for Trackalytics, the number of new followers gained, and additional information, like the appearance on Twitter lists. Complementing this, we decided to use the YouTube Data Tools video list feature to create a list of all the videos on the Liberty Hangout channel and their metadata. Based on these findings, we chose 25 videos to further analyze. These videos were picked based on various factors, like high view counts, but also low views and different like/dislike ratios, to get a representative cross-section of Liberty Hangout’s content.
From there, we looked at the 25 top comments of each video, using the YouTube Data Tools Video Info tool, manually categorizing them into one of five different categories, from very positive to very negative. Since the first comment of each video is a pinned comment by Liberty Hangout, this was excluded from the analysis. Similarly, comment replies and instances where one user made multiple subsequent comments were avoided. This analysis was therefore only of the 25 unique top comments made by audiences.
The categorization was done as follows:
Very Positive: completely agree with Bennett and oftentimes include slurs and abusive language towards opposing political ideas (i.e. the opponents of Bennett)
Positive: generally agree with Bennett, but use objective language
Neutral: have no clear position, or do not reference Bennett and her political ideologies at all
Negative: generally disagree with Bennett, but use objective language
Very Negative: completely disagree with Bennett and oftentimes include slurs and abusive language towards her and her supporters
In the end, we hoped to sort the 625 comments into these categories to show the development of the comment section over the course of the past two years.
Just looking at SocialBlade, it is already apparent that Liberty Hangout’s introduction of Bennett as a main presenter caused a drastic increase in viewership and subscribers. While Bennett’s twitter following did not increase as explosively, she did manage to have a steady flow of new supporters throughout the first half of 2019. These graphs also show that interest and support in both Liberty Hangout, and Bennett as a person is not consistent and wavers a lot, with the monthly gained viewers and subscribers fluctuating between highs of over 12 million views in May 2019 to right under 2.5 million in December. Similarly, her personal Twitter account, in parts, shows stagnant growth and a decrease in list appearances. Even though support seems to always fluctuate, the overall interest slowly decreased up until the end of 2019.
Coincidentally, starting in January, views tripled and the new subscribers gained doubled up until February, the same period in which both the article about Bennett’s incident were published, and when a massive increase in Kaitlin Bennett and Liberty Hangout memes can be observed on TikTok and other social media.
It is no surprise that our first finding reflects these statistics. Looking at the overall views, the heyday of Liberty Hangout was between early to mid-2019 and while again, views seem to move between relatively high and relatively low, the overall trend is moving towards a decreased interest in the produced content. At the very end, like on SocialBlade, the latest video seems to be received better with a massively increased view-count already, despite only being released for a short period.
Now, dissecting these videos even more and looking at the like-dislike-ratio, it can be observed that the overall interaction and engagement roughly mirrors the total view-counts. After Bennett’s initial appearance on Liberty Hangout, the first video that managed to gain millions of views, also attracted a relatively big amount of dislikes, as visualized here.
Here, it also has to be pointed out that for a few videos, among them the video with the overall highest views, the comment and like function were turned off by the channel administrator. After this controversial beginning, the total engagement in form of likes drastically decreases, with a few peaks, but judging by the dislikes, not many “haters” seemed to engage with Liberty Hangout’s content. Although, a rule of thumb here could say that, generally, the more attention a video gains, the more hate, and as a result, dislikes, it attracts. This development seems to be normal and pretty much reflects other major channels. The most interesting point here seems to be the very end of the graph. Looking at the last 30 to 40 videos, dislikes look to be more frequent, even with videos with overall low view counts. Especially the latest video attracted a relatively large amount of hate and dislike, compared to videos with similar views.
Everything that was done before basically just marks the cornerstones or the foundation of this research. Now to get down to the “meat and potatoes”, as they say, let us have a look at the comment section. Earlier, the way we selected the videos and categorized the comments was introduced. After manually sorting the comments and visualizing the results, some interesting results were illustrated.
Firstly, and possibly what most people care about, there is, in fact, a drastic increase of very negative comments. Starting at practically no comments, the amount of very negative comments skyrocketed in the second half of 2019, and after decreasing momentarily, re-spiked with Liberty Hangout’s latest videos. At times, roughly 40% of the top 25 comments were comprised of very negative comments. Especially in later videos, many of them do reference Kaitlin Bennett’s “incident” and the trend goes towards an even more dramatic increase. While not part of our analyzed videos, a quick look at videos that were posted after February 18, 2020, shows that now, a majority of the top comments are not in favor of Bennett and her style of Interviewing.
Negative comments, on the other hand, show a slight decrease, compared to mid to late 2019, where the amount of negative comments made up almost all, if not a large majority of the comments that were analyzed. In total, with regards to the amount of very negative comments, it does have to be noted that the number of negative comments is generally larger than the number of very negative comments.
Similarly, the amount of positive comments regularly made up a large majority of the total comments, oftentimes moving between 10 and 15, sometimes almost 20 comments. As obvious as it seems, it might have to be added that the amount of positive and very positive comments generally mirrors the opposite of the negative and very negative comments. What is also interesting here is the decrease in positive comments starting at the end of 2019 and only making up a minuscule part of the comments of the latest analyzed video.
Much like the very negative comments, the very positive ones started out with minor amounts in early 2019, but quickly increased up to 10, frequently moving between no comments at all to 30-40% of the analyzed comments. Here, again, the overall amount is generally lower than the two less-extreme categories, but like with the positive comments, the amount decreased at the end of 2019, with the latest video only featuring three very positive comments in the top 25 comments.
Yes, this analysis was extensive, but it is still missing an explanation of the neutral comments. As can be seen, neutral comments made up a larger part of the comment section in the beginnings of Liberty Hangout, but as time went by, and the viewership clearly split up into more opinionated individuals, the amount of neutral comments went down by quite a bit.
So now, what is all this about? We extensively covered how the different amounts of comments shifted and changed and what parts of the comment section they make up, but what does that mean for the overall argument, if anything?
Essentially, the most basic information that can be taken away from this is that if you’re watching Liberty Hangout, you are either a lover or a hater. Especially now, when Bennett and her entourage are as polarizing as ever, little to none of her viewers are not opinionated in any way. Lately, haters have been more vocal about their disdain for Liberty Hangout’s content and abusive comments have taken over a large portion of their YouTube channel.
For any other creator, an onslaught of hate would be crushing and completely demotivating, but it seems like, for Liberty Hangout, hate gets monetized. As pointed out before, generally speaking, the more attention a video gets, the more negativity it attracts, but this idea can be flipped and it could be argued that the more negativity a video attracts, the more attention it gets. Exemplified by Liberty Hangout’s now-infamous “transgender restroom debate”, where Bennett inquired college students about providing female hygiene products in male restrooms or putting urinals in women’s restrooms to cater to trans individuals, the meme-ability of a video makes up a significant portion of its success. Unsurprisingly, this video gained massive attention, mostly negative, and Bennett was mocked online for her interviewing style and her personal opinion. Being recreated and topicalized in many TikToks and memes, said video managed to accumulate over 800.000 views, four times the amount of views of the video immediately before that.
The controversial topics and titles of the videos suggest that Liberty Hangout is well aware of their influence, status, and audiences. On one hand, do their anti-liberal videos cater to their more conservative audiences, on the other do the provocative video titles entice criticism from politically liberal viewers. Not infrequently does this clash of two opposing political ideas result in viewers fighting and debating amongst each other. Rather than creating an informative environment of civil discourse, in a way, Liberty Hangout encourages abusive language and debates, even though the channel describes itself as an “alternative news source”.
At this point, many should have come to the realization that journalism in the traditional sense is not the main goal of Liberty Hangout. Other than being provocative, it is also a “job” for Bennett and the other founders of the channel. A job that, in essence, lives from the controversial personality of Bennett. Investigating the YouTube channel further, Kaitlin Bennett can be seen in virtually all of the thumbnails. She seems to be crucial to the success of the channel and is therefore promoted frequently throughout the page. No other individual, except for maybe Donald Trump, is as heavily featured as Bennett. Furthermore, when clicking on a random video, usually the first few lines of the video description are dedicated to a short introduction or summary of the video itself, immediately followed by an incentive to “support Kaitlin on Patreon” with a link. Patreon is a subscription platform where creators can ask their patrons for money, in exchange for different perks, exclusive content and other benefits. This all can be seen already before clicking on show more, so the most valuable space of the video description is dedicated to financially supporting Bennett. Only after that, a little bit more hidden, do we find the Liberty Hangout social media links and their merchandise store.
Going even further, the first thing visitors see when they enter libertyhangout.org is a picture of Bennett, accompanied by the slogan “The official home of Kaitlin Bennett”, as well as pictures of Bennett herself modeling Liberty Hangout’s merchandise. Only under Meet the Team does the website finally feature contributors other than Bennett. Clearly, Bennett is Liberty Hangout’s most valuable asset. Not only is her interviewing style controversial and attention-grabbing, but her physical assets, as sad as it sounds in 2020, do help her case reaching a large male audience.
Unfortunately, it seems like no amount of attention-grabbing and controversy are good enough to sustain a long term career. While Bennett had her highs and lows over the past year, even the “incident” and the wave of attention that came with it, seem to have died down. Memes and TikToks are less and less frequent on social media, the Corona Crisis stopped her from appearing on college campuses all over the country, and even Liberty Hangout’s YouTube channel doesn’t seem to be able to replicate the success that came at the start of the year. While the last video that we analyzed, published on February 18, 2020, managed to accumulate almost 800.000 views, the videos published in the weeks after only got 100.000-200-000 views, and the newest videos, all published in the first week of April, barely surpassed 50.000 views. Liberty Hangout is no stranger to fluctuating view-counts, as mentioned in the beginning, but the views of the past month have reached the level of December 2019, which marked a low-point for Liberty Hangout, and amount of new subscribers gained in March barely passed 7000 people, only about half the amount of December, marking the worst month for the channel, in terms of growth, since the introduction of Bennett.
As grim as it seems to be looking for Liberty Hangout and Kaitlin Bennett right now, the prognosis seems even grimmer. Although the month has only started, Liberty Hangout’s growth looks to be completely stagnant, with a downwards trend, losing about a thousand subscribers over the past days.
This just goes to show, like many others before Bennett, controversy and meme-status are not enough to maintain a serious journalistic career, and while many had faith in her ability to become the next Tomi Lahren, a similarly good looking conservative political commentator, Kaitlin Bennett’s Liberty Hangout looks to be hung up in its old ways, failing to attract and entice audiences like in its heyday. Even her “incident” only managed to put her in the public spotlight again for a short-lived period, and unlike the damage to her reputation (and probably the smell), this success will not linger.