Just a few years ago, Dan Bongino was a B-list pundit working on the fringes of conservative media.
A former police officer and Secret Service agent, Mr. Bongino ran for Congress three times as a Republican. He lost all three races, then turned to punditry, where he had a bit more success. He appeared regularly with Alex Jones on Infowars, then got his own show on NRA TV, the National Rifle Association’s now-defunct online media arm. After the 2016 election, he became one of Fox News’s most prolific contributors — a pro-Trump attack dog who could be called on to defend the president and humiliate his enemies.
“My entire life right now is about owning the libs,” he said in 2018.
Today, Mr. Bongino is owning more libs than almost anyone in America. He has become one of the most popular right-wing commentators in the country, with millions of social media followers, a top-20 podcast, a line of best-selling books and a Facebook page that generates more monthly engagement than the pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN combined.
I first noticed Mr. Bongino’s profile rising a few months ago, when I started compiling a list of the top-performing Facebook posts every day. He appeared on the lists more often than not, and frequently trounced much better-known commentators like Sean Hannity and Ben Shapiro. (This month, for example, Mr. Bongino has gotten nearly twice as many Facebook interactions as Mr. Shapiro, despite having a much smaller following.)
Mr. Bongino, 45, has become a lightning rod on the left, both because of his growing audience and because he has been criticized for posting exaggerated and misleading information. He was one of the most aggressive promoters of “Spygate,” a dubious conspiracy theory about an illegal Democratic plot to spy on Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. He falsely claimed that masks are “largely ineffective” at preventing the spread of Covid-19, and has promoted unproven claims about voter fraud as well as stoking fears about a Democrat-led coup. (Mr. Bongino has claimed that he was merely repeating left-wing claims about post-election violence.)
Plenty of people have fact-checked Mr. Bongino. But nobody has figured out what, exactly, has lifted him above the legions of other pro-Trump influencers battling for attention online.
I called Mr. Bongino the other day, hoping to learn something about how he became Facebook’s biggest right-wing star. But he said he had no idea, either.
“I don’t know what it is,” he said. “The strategy didn’t change at all. I think people just like the message.”
A charming thing about social media — or a terrifying one, depending on your perspective — is that it often creates stars who have no idea how they got there. An Olympic gymnast or a world-class violinist follows a well-worn path, but every day, YouTubers, TikTok stars and Facebook pundits wake up to millions of new followers just because their personas happen to fit into the grooves of a platform’s algorithm.
Granted, Mr. Bongino’s shtick is not exactly new. His brand of right-wing pugilism is similar to what talk-radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin have been doing for decades. He is good at turning daily culture-war skirmishes into hyperpartisan outrage-bait, with a cast of recurring left-wing villains and right-wing heroes who inevitably show up to dunk on them. (Typical headline: “CNN’s Fredo SCHOOLED On His Brother’s Coronavirus Policies.”) And he is skilled at a certain type of industrial-scale content production that is valuable on today’s internet, flooding social media with a torrent of original posts, remixed memes and videos and found footage.
“We’ll take some interesting clip of maybe the president or Kayleigh McEnany, and we’ll intermingle it with clips of my show, and it seems to work well for us,” he said. “Wherever my content is posted, we just get an incredible response.”
Along with his Facebook page, Mr. Bongino and a small team of writers keep up the Bongino Report, a news aggregator started last year to cater to conservatives who felt that the Drudge Report had become too liberal. He puts out podcast episodes and videos in which he rants against the “deep state,” decries the “Russia hoax,” and promotes spurious claims about Hunter Biden’s laptop — all fairly standard Fox News narratives, repackaged for a Facebook audience.
Mr. Bongino’s popularity began to spike during this spring’s Covid-19 lockdowns, as election season began to heat up and QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy movement, grew in popularity. (Mr. Bongino is not a QAnon promoter, but his content is popular with the movement’s supporters.)
Unlike Mr. Shapiro, whose website, The Daily Wire, was caught using a network of affiliated Facebook pages to generate traffic, Mr. Bongino swears he has “absolutely, categorically, 100 percent never” used any underhanded tactics to boost his Facebook presence.
“We don’t use bots,” he said. “We don’t even advertise much on Facebook.”
He credits his popularity, instead, to Facebook’s older and more conservative user base — and to the writers who work for him, who “have almost made a cottage industry” of understanding the platform’s algorithms, he said.
Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Bongino is a frequent critic of Facebook and other Silicon Valley tech companies, which he believes are censoring conservatives. His own posts have been flagged several times by Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers, and he said it was only a matter of time before the social network cracked down on him more aggressively.
“I’m anticipating being banned from Facebook,” he said. “They’ll ban me, or use some excuse to throttle my page. It’s going to have nothing to do with facts. It’s going to be ideological.”
It’s hard to square Mr. Bongino’s concerns about right-wing censorship with the incredible performance of his page. Still, he is making backup plans. He has invested in Parler and Rumble, two start-ups building “free speech alternatives” to Twitter and YouTube, respectively, and has begun posting his content there as well as on the larger networks.
Mr. Bongino, who was recently found to have lymphoma, allowed that Facebook had been a “pretty good business partner,” despite his disagreements with the company’s fact-checkers. And he maintained that he had no secret sauce — no growth-hacking strategy, no shortcuts, no networks of unlabeled pages funneling clicks to his posts. Mostly, he seems to be succeeding by catering to a large and hyper-engaged audience of Facebook conservatives, while being slightly more cautious than other right-wing pundits not to run afoul of Facebook’s rules. He said he didn’t even take advantage of Facebook’s analytics tools, which allow creators to get a fine-tuned sense of what their audience wants to see.
“If I told you I spent 10 minutes on analytics over the past year, I’d be lying,” he said. “I have no idea who’s watching, I just know it’s a whole lot of whos.”