Ben Shapiro on Facebook, Israel, and my conversion
The most prominent American kippah-wearer addresses media and Judaism in the time of a cold civil war
If there were ever a Pull Request guest that doesn’t need an introduction, it’s Ben Shapiro. Author of numerous bestselling books (including the recent The Authoritarian Moment), founder of conservative media network The Daily Wire, Shapiro is a polarizing figure who leaves nobody indifferent.
We spoke by phone, both of us talking at 100 MPH to cram in a full interview in 20 minutes.
I read your recent book, which I liked. To give it a solid plug, this is The Authoritarian Moment: How the Left Weaponized America's Institutions Against Dissent, which is available where all fine books are sold.
There's one thing in particular I wanted to talk to you about, Ben, because you have been so successful in creating your own media empire with a series of bestselling books and The Daily Wire. I worked at Facebook and used to write about Facebook a lot. If you look at the engagement data for your posts and The Daily Wire's posts on Facebook, it's incredible…they essentially beat any conventional media network.
One question I often see debated inside the tech world—I'm speaking as a techie here—is that many Valley people say: "This elite world of The New Yorker, The New York Times, like who cares, we're going to create new modalities, like podcasting, like Substack, whatever. And we're just going to create our own spaces where the legacy elites don’t matter."
Then there's more cynical techies who say, "Well, maybe so, but it's the elite spaces that matter, because it's the elites that have captured almost every American institution and set the national agenda, so the weird tech alternatives don’t really matter."
Someone like me can have a small operation on Substack or somebody like you can do very well with your own thing. But in some sense, it's not going to impact what happens at (say) Harvard or the Dalton School. You get into this in your book, where you mentioned how elites have weaponized journalism and turned it into basically an avenue for political activism under the supposed rubric of objectivity. What are your thoughts on that media vs. elite debate?
Yeah. I think that one of the great tragedies of Facebook as we've experienced it over the past six years, is that Facebook really was a place where you could build an alternative to places like The New York Times or The Washington Post. Facebook was a place where you could market yourself and garner an audience and make up ground that the legacy media had. Right? I mean the legacy media and the Washington Post, The New York Times, the three broadcast network, CNN, all these places had enormous institutional weight. And Facebook, because it had garnered billions of eyeballs, was a one-stop shop for people who were looking for an alternative. In the early days, they were basically concerned with openness and fairness of process where everybody was playing by the same rules, then there was an enormous amount of ground that was made up by conservative media, right at the beginning.
The news business is like a tiny slice of Facebook's pie. And so the question for them is, what sort of pressure do we wish to remain under, in order to uphold this value of free speech …? And the answer is, apparently, only as far as The New York Times and Washington Post aren't going to hit you every day.
And so, I'm not going to pretend like we haven't been successful on Facebook. We're massively successful on Facebook. One of the things that has happened and they made this clear this week, is that over the past year, the pressure that they were brought under by the elite media, they just stopped standing up to it; they started basically catering to the legacy media. And what people don't understand about a lot of these companies, which I'm sure which you do, is that the news business doesn't make up anywhere near a huge bulk of what makes money for Facebook. The news business is like a tiny slice of Facebook's pie. And so the question for them is, what sort of pressure do we wish to remain under, in order to uphold this value of free speech that Zuckerberg has talked about at places like Georgetown University? And the answer is, apparently, only as far as The New York Times and Washington Post aren't going to hit you every day.
It's kind of a shocking thing. The internet allowed for everybody to get out there and put up their own stand. And so you had this shouk, this giant market where everybody had their own stand, and some stands were a lot bigger than the others, like The Times, but you could make Daily Wire your homepage. Then Facebook came along and everybody just made their Newsfeed their homepage. So this benefited The New York Times, but it also benefited smaller places that suddenly had access to all these billions of eyeballs that wouldn't have necessarily gone directly to Daily Wire. Then these big social media companies, under pressure from legacy media, decided to basically start bottlenecking the traffic. They decided that they were going to minimize the amounts of traffic that a lot of conservative outlets got.
And so over the last year, we saw our traffic dip fairly significantly because Facebook put into place all of these supposed objectivity standards that do precisely the opposite: they made your traffic dependent on approval by fact checkers; they made your traffic dependent on not being too heavily Facebook oriented. So you had to now have a certain percentage of your traffic from sources that were not Facebook. Well, if you're The Times, you had those sources, but if you're a startup, like we are, then a huge percentage of your traffic is going to come from Facebook. So all of those systems basically re-established a lot of the mainstream media dominance that Facebook had taken away.
As a personal anecdote, when the 2016 election happened, probably the most shocking thing of that whole Facebook media cycle was, I think, Zuck's second post after the election, in which he hinted that he'd be working with fact checkers to actually regulate content. Because, of course, that had never been the tone of the conversation.
It was the 2016 election, there's no question. I mean, it was a turning point. Before 2016, Facebook was the darling of a lot of the media outlets that now crap on it every single day, because Facebook, of course, had been used to great advantage by the Obama campaign in 2012. And all of the stories were about how brilliant they were, and then 2016 happens. And there needs to be some sort of myth of how Trump got elected because it can't just be “Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate who ran a horrible campaign.” It has to be something else. So we get the Russian story, and then we get the Facebook story. And the Facebook story is that because Facebook allowed the Russians to manipulate the American people or allowed news outlets like Daily Wire or Daily Caller or Breitbart to get the news out there, and this is why Hillary Clinton lost.
And on the Russian side, it's just not true. I mean, if you just look at the actual reach statistics for the supposed Russian domination of these stories, they're ridiculous, on their face, they're ridiculous. These things were getting fewer shares over the course of a year than probably my Facebook page gets over the course of a month. And that's just my Facebook page, right?
But that narrative built up, and instead of the leadership at Facebook just saying, "Listen, what we are a platform, we always said, we were a platform, stick it. You don't like it, stick it." Instead of them doing that, they decided they were going to try and dip their toe in the water of how do we please everybody. And once you're in the water of how do we please everybody, you please nobody.
Yeah, on the issue of engagement numbers, back when I was so foolish as to try to push the needle on the Facebook discourse, I would look at the engagement stats for a lot of these Jesus meme pages, and they were so pathetic. They were so small, it was a joke. The thought that you could actually sway an election, in a country of 300 million people, with crappy Jesus memes … as a former Facebooker, I wish Facebook ads worked that well, but they don’t.
It was an absurdity. It was an absurdity, and everybody who's in the tech world knew that it was an absurdity. When there were these Senate committees that would release these thick documents of, "Look at all these Russian memes, where I chose that Hillary Clinton is the devil." And then you'd look at the engagement numbers, and it was like a thousand engagements. Everybody in the tech world knows that that means that the thing got no views, but they had to have the narrative. And so they just started pretending that it had impact even when it didn't. And that actually did have impact. Right? By pushing it so hard, the notion that the election was perverted by all of these deeply nefarious forces, that got the leadership at Facebook to basically backend the bottleneck that they couldn't impose from the outside.
Okay, I know we don’t have a lot of time, so I’m going to completely switch topics.
Oh yeah, go for it.