Commentary: Pictures of innocent pets are used as symbols for whatever ideology the owner wants to support.
In 2018, nothing on the internet is safe from political strife – not even pets. And dogs, as most Twitter users have found, are the sought-after mouthpieces behind the most contentious issues. These virtual dogs bark, growl and aren’t afraid to get dirty in Twitter’s chaotic political battleground, while simultaneously playing upon humans’ affinity for cuteness.
Behold, political pet Twitter: an emerging ecosystem of satirical accounts for fictional animals that take on distinct political leanings. It’s an alternate universe full of alt-right dog politics, a community of MAGA-wearing, gun-loving pets and a stream of angry capitalized barks by a watchdog keen to sniff out online racism. Each account offers political and social commentary under the guise of an adorable avatar, and while some are used for parody and others are reserved for a specific purpose, each is carefully curated to distinguish its own tone and content.
Racism Watchdog is known for its trademark angry “borks” and “woofs,” alerting users to tweets with racist undertones, while Breitbark News relays its “alt-bite” conservative agenda through dog puns. And based off their solely political posts, these accounts are accumulating tens of thousands of followers who boost their tweets to virality.
Originality is key in appealing to an online audience, according to Jared Hussey, the curator of Breitbark News and Dog President Pooch (a pup parody account of President Trump). Breitbark News, which Hussey started in January 2017, currently has about 6,000 followers, but he thinks it has not yet “reached its peak” in comparison to other accounts (Racism Watchdog has roughly 500,000 followers).
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“All the other dog accounts, they have their own niche. But comedy is good when it’s fresh,” he said. “Before I even tweeted anything, in my notes on my phone, I just worked out very funny dog story lines that were about current events.”
Viral content featuring cute animals is nothing new online, said internet scholar Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication, culture and digital technologies at Syracuse University. In fact, the history of using animals for political and ideological purposes has an obscurely dark past.
“One of the things that happened in early trolling spaces in the early to mid-2000s, (trolls) enjoyed juxtaposing cute animals, often cats, with absolutely disgusting, politically abhorrent views and statements,” Phillips said. “It deliberately plays up the dichotomy between, say, a cute dog and misogynistic expression.”
Phillips referenced the popularity of memes such as Advice Dog and LOLCats, which originated from the annals of popular internet forums like 4chan. Online users were quick to copy the style and formatting of these images in their own posts, turning them into easily identifiable internet symbols.
Likewise, successful pet accounts, regardless of political leanings, have made themselves distinguishable on Twitter by building upon audiences’ penchant for pet content, Phillips noted.
“They’re borrowing these collective tropes that identify it as part of dog Twitter,” she said. “It’s not just that people like dogs. It’s that people have gotten used to a type of dog speak that they like.”
The “dog speak” Phillips refers to is the lingo surrounding dog culture on the internet, made popular through the Facebook group Dogspotting, according to NPR.
A notable pioneer of internet dog lingo, Matt Nelson is the founder of We Rate Dogs and Thoughts of Dog, two Twitter accounts that, together, broadcast to more than 8 million followers. Nelson is the epitome of a Twitter success story: a recent college graduate, he has branded his accounts and established an LLC, monetizing his six-figure business with dog-related merchandise.
Yet he has also noticed a shift toward more politicized content, with new pet accounts “popping up left and right.” Nelson personally sees no reason to consign his pet-friendly platforms to politics despite his self-proclaimed liberal views, but he has found that even the most innocuous posts can stir up tension online.
“With such a big platform, every move you make has to be very well thought out,” he said.
Last year, Nelson was criticized for his branded “covfefe” hats, a product whose profits he promised to donate to Planned Parenthood before quickly backtracking upon claims of “needless politicization” (he apologized multiple times). More recently, he renamed a dog called “Kanan” to the seemingly benign “George,” igniting backlash and discussions about identity politics.
But Nelson is quick to dismiss any claims that he is politically neutral, detailing instances when he posted about the Women’s March and March for Our Lives, and his viral blocking of U.S. Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai in December. He considers his causes more humanitarian than political.
“People who support (political accounts) are loving the content because it’s cute animals paired with things that reinforce all their world views, so of course they like it,” Nelson said.
That’s how Derek Utley, founder of Conservative Pets, captures the hearts and minds of conservative Twitter users – with pets in “Make America Great Again” hats, appropriately dressed in red, white and blue bandannas. Politics is what stokes his audience’s excitement, down to the “no liberal pets” mantra pinned to the top of Utley’s page.
“It gives people a different perspective, instead of hearing it from a politician,” he said.
In his day job, Utley is the chairman of X Strategies, a conservative political consulting firm affiliated with Students for Trump founder Ryan Fournier and Fox contributor Christopher Neiweem. It has benefited his account greatly: A little over a month after creating Conservative Pets, the account has more than 16,000 Twitter followers.
“The kind of questions I get from people are, ‘Well, how do you know if (the pets) are conservative?’ My response is ‘don’t overthink it,'” Utley said with a small chuckle. “At the end of the day, it’s just fun and I love it.”
Conservative Pets follows a similar structure to Nelson’s wildly successful We Rate Dogs platform: Utley crowdsources images of pets from Twitter users and reposts them with humorous and sometimes snarky conservative messages.
Adapting unique political commentary into pet content is a rising trend, said Nelson, who sees it as a means to attract followers from a specific political demographic.
The difference between wholesome, family-friendly pet accounts and their political counterparts is clear, down to the philosophy of how to manage a platform.
Unlike Nelson, who monetizes his brands, Hussey and the founders of Racism Watchdog said they have no intent to profit from their accounts in the future, although Racism Watchdog currently solicits donations for the Southern Poverty Law Center. They’re adamant that these accounts are a hobby – a unique way to remain politically engaged through social commentary.
That engagement comes at a cost.
Twitter is a breeding ground for trolls and bots, especially when it comes to political hot topics. The founders of Racism Watchdog, who refer to themselves as the dog’s “two dads,” have requested to maintain their anonymity, citing accounts of threats and harassment online – incidents they hope to keep away from their personal lives. Utley and Nelson also encounter their fair share of trolls, spam and inappropriate content, and acknowledge that it comes with the online territory.
Racism Watchdog’s tweets only contain onomatopoeia, but with a platform that engages half a million users, it is constantly bombarded by private messages, replies and mentions. But ultimately, its curators still maintain control of the feed’s political narrative, even within controversial discussions.
“The barking is what it is,” the Twitter account’s co-owner said. “Whether you think it’s a productive thing or not, it gets the discussion going.”
That’s what trolls do, in a general sense. They inject provocative, ideological messages into online spaces, shielded in anonymity while provoking chaos. Hussey, who caters to a much smaller platform of users, brands Breitbark News as the troll among Twitter users: “That’s what makes (the messaging) so effective. It obviously is ridiculous and obnoxious.”
Ridiculous or obnoxious political messaging aside, it’s hard to find fault with these virtual dogs. They bark when they’re told and enjoy rolling around in Twitter’s political mud. After all, that’s what dogs do best. And to their political owners, that’s what makes them very good boys.