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The team behind 2016’s most outrageous viral videos

Updated

The Independent Journal Review is bringing home 2016’s bacon, and they’re cooking it on the end of a really big gun fired by Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz. 

On Monday, the site published a video showing the Texas senator firing an M-16 automatic rifle at a gun range, then pausing to eat a slice of bacon he’d fried up on the gun barrel. “Machine gun bacon!” Cruz says in the video, taking a bite.  

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It’s the latest 2016 GOP candidate video released by the three-year-old news site best described as the conservative version of Upworthy, the viral news factory that repackages progressive-leaning content with click-compelling headlines. 

The series of candidate videos began just a week ago, with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina taking a meat cleaver to his cell phone after Donald Trump read the Graham’s phone number aloud on national television. Graham’s hilarious response to Trump’s nastiness — which IJ Review creative director Benny Johnson said was essentially a creative retelling of the senator’s own press release — had been viewed more than 2 million times as of Monday.

And that’s just the beginning: Johnson, who came of age at Buzzfeed before being fired for plagiarizing content, is leading the charge to produce 2016’s most shareable videos. His team — a handful of editors and writers that he calls the “YOLO Squad” — are planning to create entertaining videos featuring as many candidates as they can convince to participate.

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We’re “speaking to the Internet in the way it wants to be spoken to,” Johnson told msnbc, explaining that he strives to create content that balances “Wow, I’d like to see that” with newsworthiness. “Yes, it’s cooking bacon on a machine gun,” Johnson said of the Cruz video, “but also on a very rich level it says something on his stance on the Second Amendment.”

The videos may be IJ Review’s splashiest content, but it’s just part of the site’s goal of delivering news to the masses by making it intensely shareable, fun, and informative.

“My definition of news is: What would you tell your neighbor over the fence? Frankly, that’s social,” IJ Review’s newly-minted Executive Editor Michelle Jaconi told msnbc, pointing to a share rate she says is the “best in the industry,” citing a Newswhip award.

The site’s audience is exploding: On Quantcast, it ranked 52nd in montly traffic with 26 million unique hits a month, just below Fox News. That’s higher than Upworthy. It also bests conservative media rival The Blaze and entertainment mecca TMZ. IJ Review is also growing rapidly. Eighteen months ago, the site was ranked at 205 on Quantcast, according to Buzzfeed.  

The site has 103 editorial staffers and is still growing — it hired Hunter Schwarz from Washington Post late last month. The editors announce new staff with posts on the mobile app Vine. 

IJ Review has even made it onto President Obama’s radar: One of its reporters got the president to weigh in on guacamole with peas during a Twitter Q&A.

The site is largely read by Independents and Republicans, according to Quantcast data, and its articles often veer towards the right. “In 30 Seconds Rand Paul Shows How Disgusted He Is With What Planned Parenthood Is Doing,” reads one headline. “What Happened Years Before Benghazi That Should Have Been a Wake-Up Call for the Hillary State Dept,” reads another. 

Johnson said he hasn’t yet been turned down while pitching a candidate but knows he might be in the future. In the meantime, he’s also daydreaming about other videos he can mine from the upcoming 2016 election. 

His dream video? Skydiving with former President George H.W. Bush.

“That’s like the holy grail,” he said. “Just tie me up to George H.W. Bush and let’s jump out of a plane together.”

Social Media and Ted Cruz

The team behind 2016’s most outrageous viral videos

Updated