In the last 24 hours, Sarah Palin has tweeted the following phrases: “Oh boy.” “Ouch!” “That’s gotta hurt … salt in the wounds!” “YES!” and “Another win for America!”
These brief declarations have been accompanied by links to sarahpalin.com, where visitors to the homepage are greeted by a full-screen black-and-white photo of the former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate. The banner reads, “Sarah Palin Building America’s Future,” and the logo is a rendering of the United States with Alaska stamped haphazardly onto the middle, obscuring roughly South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas as well as parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Missouri, and Tennessee.
But iconography aside, sarahpalin.com is not the kind of website typical of former politicians or even political has-beens who retain a lingering hope that they will hold office again. For instance, the website for Rick Santorum is designed to solicit donations for some unspecified endeavor, likely to pay off existing campaign debt or to rack up more of it in another race. The sites belonging to Mitt Romney, Joe Biden, and Michele Bachmann are there to collect the email addresses of their supporters, information that may one day be harnessed to fundraise for a campaign. Martin O’Malley’s asks for donations and contact information, his plans for 2020 plain as day. (Most somber of all, Jeb Bush’s simply says, “Thank You.”)
Palin’s, meanwhile, is something else entirely: a right-wing content farm.
A quick scroll through sarahpalin.com reveals that there are ads and there is a “U.S. Debt Clock” ($19 trillion and counting). At the bottom of every page, under the tab labeled “more,” there is an ad section labeled “you may also like.” It features all manner of shady clickbait: a guide to which celebrities “are jerks in real life,” photos of tacky jewelry, and a drawing of what appears to be diseased feet. You see this kind of thing in pop-up ads that look like fake websites, or at the bottom of real websites that are stuck in another era of the internet. There’s also an online store, where you can purchase Palin’s books and DVDs of Sarah Palin’s Alaska. And there is “Her Story,” a short biography complete with oddly stretched photos of the woman herself.
Most prominent on the website, though, are short articles that are presented as news.
Many of the posts are just bad aggregation, condensed and rewritten versions of reports from other publications — like the Daily Caller, Fox News, and Politico, as well as less well-known sites such as Weasel Zippers — that shape and distribute news so that it confirms a conservative worldview. You might call it fake news or propaganda, with headlines like, “YES! Trump Fulfills Campaign Promise to Help the Coal Industry” (approximately 70 jobs were created, by a private company, at a coal mine in Pennsylvania) or “EVIDENCE FOUND! Trump Was Right on Voter Fraud …” (12 people in Indiana were charged with submitting fraudulent voter-registration applications, while Trump claimed that “millions” of undocumented immigrants had voted illegally in the 2016 election).
Others are just random write-ups of viral videos; one reads, “Two INCREDIBLE Performances Are Leaving Americans SPEECHLESS.” Once in a while, there will be a column or two.
Nearly 300 pages’ worth of these stories are available for your reading pleasure. The first ones date from December 8, 2016.
Palin has tried various means of remaining relevant since her exit from electoral politics. In addition to the obligatory Fox News contributor gig, she and her family appeared on several short-lived reality TV shows, and in 2014 she launched the Sarah Palin Channel, a subscription-based internet TV network. When the service folded a year later, she said she would make all of its content free on her Facebook page and sarahpac.com, the website for her political action committee.
Last year, per financial disclosures, Sarah PAC spent $2.2 million, primarily on direct mail and salaries for its staff. In early 2016, there was a “news” section on the site, but mostly, that was just Palin blogging, as she’s done for years. Then, sometime during the period from October to January 2017, sarahpac.com became sarahpalin.com. For a time, the bottom of the site had a message: “DISCLAIMER: the articles on this website DO NOT necessarily reflect the views held by Governor Palin.” But between March and May, it was removed.
Palin doesn’t write much. Initially, she penned a few of the articles, with titles like “INSANE”; “Trig’s School of Life. We’re all learning!”; “Alpha Males … Hot Hot Hot”; and “You, Sir, Are Unfortunately Being Used by Democrats.”
But now, her sole contribution is when, about once a day, she publishes something called “SWEET FREEDOM DAILY DEVOTIONAL.” Occasionally, perhaps owing to error, it’s referred to as “SWEET FREEDOM DAILY DEVOTION” or even just “DAILY DEVOTIONAL,” no “sweet freedom.” These begin with scripture and end with a word of advice. On Saturday, her instruction was, “Today, quit waiting until circumstances are just right before you praise the Lord. You already have so much to thank God for, so what are you waiting for?” The contact form for press inquiries on sarahpalin.com doesn’t work, and an interview request, forwarded to Palin through a friend and associate of hers, was not answered as of press time.
The rest of the content is produced by just a handful of writers, chiefly Mary Kate Knorr and Lawrence Richard.
Knorr, who is 24, is a “senior contributor” at the website as well as a writer for Young Conservatives. Previously, she did some work in politics, including for Carly Fiorina’s campaign in Iowa. She didn’t respond to an interview request, but she does cite Flannery O’Connor on Facebook as saying, “The truth does not change according to our visibility to stomach it.”
Richard, meanwhile, has a comparatively slight online presence. It appears as though he is also in his early 20s, lives in Virginia Beach, and is a graduate of Liberty University, the Christian school founded by Jerry Falwell. A message left on his family’s home phone was not returned, and a request for confirmation of his identity, sent via Facebook, went unread and unanswered.
Other, less prolific contributors include Will Ricciardella, a self-described free-market-capitalism and constitutional-originalism advocate from Long Beach, California, who’s also written for The Daily Caller; Kevin Scholla, a sports-radio personality in Pennsylvania who is a presence at Breitbart News; Andrew Mark Miller, an editor at Young Conservatives, though he hasn’t written anything for Palin in about two months; Adrienne Ross, a conservative author who wrote just three articles several months ago; Teri Christoph, a conservative writer and blogger who contributed once back in February and now writes for Red State; and John S. Roberts, whose byline was only a presence in the beginning and who, according to an online bio, served as a “campaign specialist” on two unnamed “high-profile local campaigns.”
I requested comments or interviews from each writer. Only Christoph replied to some questions, through email, about how, as she phrased it, “my story ended up on Sarah Palin’s website.”
She told me her piece, a column titled, “Have We Had Enough of the Mean Girls Yet, Ladies?” — a lament about the plight of conservative women, like her, who feel that feminists reacted hypocritically to Palin’s rise, and were behaving similarly in the Trump era toward the women surrounding him — was first published on Ricochet, a private blogging platform for conservatives. Because, she said, it was only available to members, she sent it to some friends asking for advice about where else to get it published. One friend “who has connections to SP” forwarded it “to her website folks,” which is how they ended up publishing it. “I was not paid for it, and I am unsure if she read it before it was published,” she said. “I don’t believe they made any edits to it.”
She added, “From what I know, her site is mostly an aggregation of articles published elsewhere, with some original pieces peppered in. I never had direct contact with her website people, so I’m afraid that’s all I know about her operation.”
Unable to consult the would-be Tina Brown of the Tea Party herself, what are we to make of Palin’s foray into the right-wing content mill?
“They are appealing to the lowest common denominator of media consumer with no real editorial standards,” a person involved in the conservative news churn told me. “My guess is that her team believes that slapping her name on stories like this is an easy way to continue to have people reading her name, while also bringing in some money through programatic ad revenue.”
In this respect, it would seem Palin aspires to be like Laura Ingraham, the conservative media personality and Fox News contributor who in 2015 founded lifezette.com, a conservative news and lifestyle site with the motto “Life. Explained.” The difference, of course, is that Palin is not just a right-leaning television presence — she was once nearly second in line to be president of the United States.
Others of her ilk have tried similar means of jumping on the digital-news gravy train, too. Allen West, the former congressman, has a website that looks a lot like Palin’s and also runs aggregated content. And Herman Cain, the colorful former presidential candidate, has a website that posts content written by him, Dan Calbrese, a Christian conservative author, and Robert Laurie, a conservative columnist. It’s not quite the same, however, since it’s opinion writing.
Still, Palin is far more popular than either of those ex-politicians. Nearly every story written by Knorr, Richards, or any of the other contributors — including her own SWEET FREEDOM DAILY DEVOTION(AL)S — is posted by Palin on social media. On Facebook, she has nearly 5 million fans, and anywhere from 100 to several thousand people “like” what she shares. On Twitter, she has close to 1.5 million followers, though her engagement there is not as considerable. Palin also shares articles from youngcons.com, and since there is some overlap between her contributors and theirs, as well as West’s, it seems possible that they are working together in some capacity. An email request sent to the publication has not yet been answered.
Perhaps Palin saw in Trump’s victory an opportunity to profit, much like fake-news purveyors did during the election. When Palin was running for vice-president, who could have predicted that nine years later she would be a failed reality-TV personality getting into the far-right clickbait business, while the star of The Apprentice sits in the Oval Office?