Case Studies: A Visual BreakdownThesis
The following are 5 known far-right publications. They cover various positions between ‘slightly worse than the Daily Mail’ to ‘hardcore neo-nazi propaganda’ and each take a different approach to the topic. The goal was to pick a varied set of samples and break down the visual hierarchy and design intent of each one.
I have focused mainly on the first impression a reader would get when entering the site, meaning the first screen of the home page. This included a breakdown of the colour, typography and layout, while also considering the overall feel, readability and visual messaging. I do need to note that this is largely based on my own impressions and is, to an extent, not much more than informed guesswork. The colours were calculated by inputting screenshots of the front pages into an online tool. The tool is not incredibly precise and has difficulty distinguishing certain colours from one another (white and light grey; red and pink) but it does give me some numbers to work with. I kind of wish I had an eye tracker to be perfectly honest, could be an interesting little experiment.
Breitbart has built up something of a reputation for itself in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election. Already with an established track record for misleading reporting and publishing conspiracy theories, the site was declared a ‘platform for the alt-right‘ by Steve Bannon, a then-executive chair who later ended up in the white house. In 2012, Bannon positioned Breitbart as ‘The Huffington Post of the right‘. In august this year, senior editor-at-large Joel Pollack described the site’s mission statement as being at war against the ‘mainstream media’, the democratic party and the republican establishment in Washington.
Headline font: Bebas Neue
Paragraph font: Georgia
Breitbart is an extensive and thoughtfully developed site. Inspirations are clearly taken from tabloid conventions. The design’s entire flow hinges on the first screen, a sort of digital front page which puts into focus a single story with a lengthy blown up headline. Much like the Daily Mail or the Express, Breitbart’s headlines are full sentences which carry the bulk of the content of any given story by themselves. The rest of the screen is devoted to a number of smaller stories listed in two columns, creating a clear visual hierarchy across the ‘front page’. Breitbart has a way of bringing attention to what it considers ‘breaking news’ by changing the colour of the main story’s headline to red. Strangely, the headlines also occasionally make use of small pictographs – such as replacing the apostrophe in “Hollywood’s” with a heart symbol or putting little Earth icons before and after Rupert Murchoch’s name.
True to its mission statement, the header starts with links to subsections titled ‘Big Government’, ‘Big Journalism’ and ‘Big Hollywood’ respectively, alluding to the three entities the site has declared ‘#WAR’ on. The bottom half of the header leads to Breitbart’s four regional subdomains.
The site is designed to be scrolled through, with headlines doing most of the work and giving the general gist of all stories without much need on the part of the audience to engage with the text of the article. The extensive focus on headlines and the way in which they are written also means that any text descriptions are unnecessary and therefore left out. The use of images is sparse, the first screen tends to only use one for the main story. This generally changes as the user scrolls down, revealing a string of older headlines, most of which have an accompanying picture. The layout of these stories is more compact, with slightly smaller type and in groups of three or four. The older stories are separated from the main page by two short columns of ‘trending’ posts.
The site uses a simple, contrasting colour palette of mostly blacks and greys on a white background. Orange serves as a highlight, though at the front page its use on a thin column of headlines serves to create a visual barrier between the main body of content and a sidebar highlighting the site’s social features and social media links. The background image is a black and white closeup of the US flag. Aside from this, the site does not tend to go overboard with patriotic imagery, though the logos of the regional subdomains have been edited to incorporate the union jack, the star of David, the geographic shape of Texas and elements taken from the Californian flag respectively.
Infowars is operating on a very simple premise: the assumption that every available piece of information is somehow deceitful and Alex Jones is the only person capable of seeing through the lies. Much like Breitbart, the site associated itself with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and is well known for supplying the alt-right with conspiracy theories – a notable example is their perpetuation of the widely debunked claim of American muslims celebrating the 9/11 attack.
The site is a fascinating mixture of wildly misleading interpretations of events, strange conspiracies and outright fabrications. This fits well with Jones’s public persona and his incoherent ramblings translate well from camera to the website format. Even better, one of the site’s high ranking editors is no other than Paul Joseph Watson, a prominent Youtube personality who is wrong about most things.
Headline font: Oswald
Paragraph Font: Proxima Nova
The design of the site is kind of all over the place. The first screen is dominated by a large automated slider, with images comprising most of the content (37.93% of the visual layout) and only one headline being visible at any given moment. The featured stories panel awkwardly shows up underneath the slider but the headlines of the stories do not fit onto the screen. The same goes for the side bar dominated by an add for a product the site itself is selling. The sidebar sometimes jerks up the length of the screen when the user scrolls down, skipping over a chunk of its contents.
The colour palette is fairly straightforward, though decent enough at establishing the mood. Infowars is the only site on the list with a pure black background, which combined with the dark blue banner and the primary red highlights is a good fit for the site’s conspiratorial bend, creating a more ‘atmospheric’ feel. My own takeaway from the design is a very strong vibe of ‘THEY don’t want you to know this’; though this might be the case partly because I know what the site is. This site is also unique among the rest of the list by prominently featuring its founder’s face in the header.
The layout does not seem particularly well structured. The sidebar seems to have a mind of its own and the list of stories – each accompanied by a picture, a brief headline and a short description – automatically loads in older posts when scrolling down. Other than that, the site’s look and layout is fairly standard, outdated even. One element does pop out more than others though.
The whole site is covered in adds for Infowars brand supplements. The link to the shop is featured prominently in the header, a giant ad dominates the sidebar and smaller ads for individual products are scattered among the news stories. Now I used to work for a game reviewing site with questionable enough ethics that the owner got away with selling the very games I was reviewing through a sister company. Over time, the site’s content evolved to be less about journalism and more about the guy selling his product. And it wasn’t nearly as on the nose as Infowars.
So I would like to propose a hypothesis: the Infowars website is not about the fake news stories or the manufactured conspiracies. It exists to sell the supplements and its design reinforces this goal more so than anything. This point, while admittedly poorly supported with circumstantial evidence and a whole lot of baseless conjecture, nevertheless provides an interesting set of lenses through which to view the site’s design. By considering the sale of supplements to be the main raison d’etre behind the site’s existence, its layout immediately appears more competent at what it does. It is a better fit for an e-shop than a regular news site and the very stories the site pushes serve to reinforce the idea that these supplements are needed in the first place. Alex Jones is not just the one person who can see through the government’s lies – he is also the one who can save YOU from a lifetime of being a slave to the establishment. All you have to do is drink his magic brain juice for 50 quid a bottle and here’s a link to the store page.
Return of Kings
Now The Return of Kings is a bit different from the rest. The site has not been designated as a far right media outlet from its conception but has over the years become more and more aligned with the alt-right. RoK started as a self-help sexual advice blog with Daryush Valizadeh (Roosh V) its sole owner and contributor. Now Roosh is something of a controversial figure, if you can believe that – his horrifically misogynistic dating advice borders on (and sometimes just is) rape advocacy and his political views have been increasingly aligned with alt-right’s narrative of oppression against white men. I’ve known of Roosh for a while now, he’s something of a known entity with us ‘feminist SJWs’ but don’t take my word for it. Go read his Wikipedia article, it’s a laugh riot.
I have included RoK on this list for several reasons. For one, the site has gone through a bit of an expansion, hiring additional writers and transforming itself from a self-help blog into a more or less full-fledged publication, including news stories and political writing. The second reason are Roosh’s own aforementioned political leanings which are reflected in the site’s writing, its use of terminology (Roosh refers to his supporters as ‘shitlords’ in multiple places) and argumentative tactics. I have previously made the argument that men’s rights activists, pickup artists and antifeminists – what some parts of the internet refer to as ‘the Manosphere’ – are be one of the core supporting pillars of the alt-right movement as a whole. Their misogynist views complete the puzzle of the white nationalist mindset and as such can be seen as directly or indirectly supporting the narratives of the alt-right. Not to mention the fact that the Daily Stormer counts them among their own and honestly, I don’t need arguments more persuasive than that to include them.
Headline Font: Monserrat
Paragraph Font: Source Serif Pro
The site’s humble origins show in its presentation. The layout is as simple as it gets – three stories are highlighted on the front page, followed by a single column list of headlines with short descriptions attached. In fact, the site’s design is very likely a WordPress template – down to the incredibly default way in which each story headline has a thumbnail attached. The colour scheme is simple and effective, it uses readable, contrasting colours and large images overlaid with text. The whole affair is almost boring in its unrefined simplicity. I am personally more of a fan of Roosh’s earlier design works, like his minimalist book covers.
The website is not too interesting from the design point of view in that it does not really appear to have been designed per se. One thing I do find interesting about the layout is that it is not overwhelmingly flooded with self-advertising the way, say, Infowars is.
In fact, aside from a single banner (which does not show up in an ad-blocked browser), there is no advertising on the first screen of the home page at all. Advertising starts showing up in the sidebar after the user scrolls down – the upper part of the sidebar is taken up by a list of the most popular posts. The reason why this is interesting is that when it comes to the ‘Manosphere’, one of the most consistent points brought up by critics is that their entire ideology hinges on the ability to sell you their product. Yes, the exact same point I brought up with Infowars except this time it’s not me pointing it out, it’s just about everyone else (including some men’s rights activists).
The Observer is a publication ran by The Charles Martel Society, a hate group styling itself as an academic movement. The site was spearheaded by Kevin MacDonald, an evolutionary psychology professor formerly of California State University. MacDonald is known for his openly antisemitic views, though his academic background has given the Observer an air of intellectual legitimacy.
As the ADL has pointed out, the Observer’s openly racial and anti-semitic presentation is unique among the far right publications with more of an intellectual bend. Keeping with the theme of not attempting to mask its open bigotry, the site’s mission statement is to advocate for ‘white identity, interests and culture’.
Headline Font: Georgia
Paragraph Font: Lucida Grande
The observer styles itself as an academic publication, an impression it is trying to push through its design. By which I mean it has gone for the most strangely old-fashioned Web 2.0 – looking site out of the lot. Its use of colour is extremely sparse, with only a green header and a scant few dark red highlight breaking up the monotony. Apart from the sidebar dedicated to Youtube videos and social media links, the front page consists of a single article, displayed as a full block of text. On scrolling down, a list of featured articles is revealed in the sidebar. Images are used sparsely and only in some of the articles.
The relatively small, closely set type of the main body of text as well as the way it dominates the screen do manage to push across a somewhat intellectual tone. The site is fairly successful at emulating the form of a printed academic journal, though I would be interested to know why it hasn’t updated its presentation to a more modern standard.
That said, the effect the observer’s eloquent academic style has is quite overwhelming and even the comment section is refreshingly intellectual in its uninhibited bigotry, eschewing the usual alt-right strategy of replacing arguments with neo-reactionary buzzwords and going for a style which I find far more insidious, even potentially capable of being convincing. I believe that the site’s presentation and its choice of lengthy blocks of text over catchy headlines limits its audience – after the cartoonishly extremist Daily Stormer, the Observer is the second least viewed site on this list – though given the tone of discussion under the articles, this might have been intentional.
This one is a bit of a classic. More or less the exact opposite of the Occidental Observer in everything but the blatantly fascist narrative, the Stormer embraces the neo-nazi label and engages in an almost whimsical display of ethnic and racial hatred, sexism, antisemitism and a whole bunch of other very unpleasant isms. The monstrous disregard for basic human decency would be hilarious if it wasn’t so appalling.
Strangely enough, Andrew Anglin’s website ended up being the most helpful in defining what exactly it is that I am running up against here. The extremist views are being worn on the sleeve, sometimes literally, in the form of a red band with a swastika on it. Anglin vocally identifies with the alt-right and provides an extremely detailed and surprisingly honest definition of the movement on the website, including a useful reference list of like-minded people and sites as well as a dictionary of sorts for memes and dog whistles.
Headline font: Arial
Paragraph Font: Arial
The Stormer’s approach to design is… different. The layout and colour palette is unusually simplistic, with only the most recent story being highlighted on top of the Featured list. The site is almost entirely written in Arial, with only the short section titles using Georgia. It is what the site manages to do with its use of images that sets it apart.
The top of the site is dominated by a colourful banner containing a strange mix of patriotic american and nazi imagery. The site does not seem to have a fixed visual identity and this banner seems to change from time to time – it had been replaced by a picture of a feline for the short period during which the site was hosted on a .cat domain. Even more interesting is the site’s use of vibrant viral imagery, caricature and propaganda. The link to the Stormer’s definition of alt-right for instance is decorated with a large thumbnail depicting Pepe the frog – in itself a modern fascist symbol – its eyes replaced with swastikas.
The site’s strange honesty about its ideology makes it difficult to believe that its content is meant to convince anyone that isn’t already aligned with the extreme right. That is not to say that the site is not meant to elicit a reaction in the viewer. More so than any one site on this list, the Stormer might be the best at preaching to the converted. The site’s non-existent ethical constraints give its writers free reign to fabricate stories and twist reality in order to best deliver the ‘two minute hate’, the catharsis of getting angry at the vague, abstract bogeymen which can be safely blamed on an ethnic group of their choice. Also interesting is the prevailing feeling of discomfort I have felt during my every visit to the site. The Stormer using this form of extreme disconnect between reality and what is represented, along with its flamboyant imagery creates a strong feeling of revulsion – making the site the most successful at eliciting and emotional reaction (from me at least) out of the examples listed.