article

04.22.11

The Trig Palin Flame War

After a liberal blogger mocked Sarah Palin’s “retarded” son, enraged supporters attacked, bullying advertisers with surprising success. Brian Ries talks to both sides of the public spat.

Ken Layne is ready for the firestorm to subside.

It’s been a frustrating 72 hours since a twentysomething freelancer named Jack Stuef published a “badly done” post about Sarah Palin’s mentally disabled son, Trig, on Wonkette.com, the left-leaning political blog Layne edits.

In the offending post, Stuef satirized a birthday poem Palin fans had written for the 3 year old on a social-networking site the night before. “Oh little boy, what are you dreaming about?” he wrote, quoting the poem. Stuef then added: “What’s he dreaming about? Nothing. He’s retarded,” the last word linking to a video of Levi Johnston accusing the former governor herself of calling Trig “retarded.”

Alongside that was a Technicolor illustration featuring a photograph of Trig, littered with animated gifs—including one of a digital stripper, dancing seductively on the boy’s right cheek. The blogger was attempting to make the point the former Alaska governor uses her son as a political prop. But the point was missed.

In the days that followed, an online mob of Palin supporters—fueled by cheerleading from a network of conservative blogs—has successfully pressured scores of major companies into ripping their ads from the site in a flash “buycott.” (“Pull your ads and we’ll buy your diapers!”)

When initially reached over email on Friday, Layne said he was “pretty done with this exciting blog story” and would get back to me after doing a few posts of his own. In a later message, he referred to “Jack Stuef’s dumbass thing” and warned we were on our way to a place where “the entire political website world would very quickly [be] facing the same kind of dumb mob bullshit as NPR is facing, as ACORN suffered, [and] as Planned Parenthood is fighting.”

"This person is guilty of hate speech against Sarah Palin, we will never buy your corn syrup dildo-pops again,” Layne wrote, imitating the mentality of the mob that’s targeted his site.

True, the Palin mob’s collective effort is a terrifying, seemingly unprecedented force to be reckoned with. Such consumer power campaigns used to take weeks, months, or even years. But driven in their defense of Trig and empowered by their connections on Twitter, #TrigsCrew, as they’ve named themselves, are winning.

“No brand wants to be labeled pro-making fun of retarded children,” a retailer said.

John Nolte, editor in chief of the conservative site Big Hollywood (operated under the name of conservative bomb-thrower Andrew Brietbart), and his colleague, Big Journalism Editor in Chief Dana Loesch, are as surprised at their success as anyone—they watched the events unfold since day one in real-time.

It was around 11 p.m. on Wednesday night when Nolte and Big Government writer Derek Hunter first found the article. “It was cruel in every imaginable way,” says Nolte. The post attacked Trig—“an act of outright evil”—and referenced the Trig Truthers—themselves guilty of “malicious slams on [Palin’s] motherhood.”

They decided that come the following morning, they would “give them hell.”

When morning came, Nolte sent the story around to a few “MSM” outlets for a reaction, while Hunter focused his efforts primarily on Twitter—tweeting at the website’s advertisers and asking them to reconsider.

Loesch, meanwhile, had been receiving a barrage of emails from readers and listeners (she’s also a talk-show host) offended by the piece. She wrote a reaction on her site. “Calling him the ‘greatest prop in history,’” Loesch opined, quoting the blogger’s name for the boy, “Wonkette proceeds to make fun of the little boy on his birthday because that’s what good writers who know about politics do.”

Now aware of the Wonkette post, her readers grew outraged. They also took to Twitter in droves and began pressuring advertisers to pull their ads—asking if they were aware of the post that calls a special-needs child “almost human.”

Starting with Papa John’s Pizza, the companies began to run. It grew from there. As of Friday afternoon, the list was 30-some strong, and includes brands like Huggies, Vanguard Group, Nordstrom, Bob Evans, and StarKist Charlie—the tuna mascot. [See the list of Wonkette’s remaining advertisers.]

As the outrage gained steam on Wednesday afternoon, Stuef updated the original post with an apology, but later Wonkette’s Layne made the decision to pull the post entirely.

Both actions would come too late. The group wasn’t stopping until every one of Wonkette’s advertisers had left, and they were dedicated to posting the proof—screenshots of the company’s tweets like the pixilated scalps of fallen brands.

“I’m flabbergasted,” writes Nolte when asked about the effectiveness of the campaign over email. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

But the campaign’s effectiveness cannot be denied.

One retailer who had been unintentionally advertising on Wonkette, a result of Google’s “behavioral targeting,” told The Daily Beast her company pulled their ads and blocked the site after the brand’s Twitter account came under a barrage of tweets from the #TrigsCrew mob.

“The thing is we don't want to be involved in anything political,” the retailer says, explaining the company’s standard practice of steering clear of mudslinging. The campaign was over a politician’s child—with special needs, nonetheless—and that made it a fairly easy decision for the retailer. “You can't respond with anything but total support because, well, it’s literally a retarded baby. No brand wants to be labeled pro-making fun of retarded children,” the retailer said.

“I am sure the #TrigsCrew people would like to think it’s a big political or moral win for them,” they added. “But it’s not. I doubt it would have impacted our bottom line either way.”

Those leading the charge would disagree.

Loesch tells me she’s heard from a number of mommy bloggers with special-needs children, on both sides of the political spectrum. Team Palin, meanwhile, are pleased themselves. Rebecca Mansour, the governor’s watch dog and online defender, sent a short Twitter message to both Nolte and Loesch to say thanks. Sarah Palin herself tweeted a message of thanks to #TrigsCrew.

As for the blogger who wrote the original piece, Loesch doesn’t feel too bad for him. She does, however, believe in redemption. “Maybe Stuef learned something from all this and will realize that children—and those with special needs—are not punchlines.”

At the end of the day, says Nolte, it’s just another case of the mainstream media being bypassed by people using social media. “The story was out for a day or two, the MSM wasn’t interested in doing anything about it, so the people did,” he says.

“God bless America, right?”

Brian Ries is tech and social media editor at The Daily Beast. He lives in Brooklyn.