Betting Big on Bad Behavior to Score Political Points
Many right-wing extremists see social media bans as a badge of honor and a new way to raise money.
Ian SherrFormer Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
All it took was a 30-second video for Eric Greitens to become a trending topic on social media this summer.
The Missouri Republican Senate hopeful's ad starts with him walking up to a home, shotgun in hand and pistol on his hip. He says the target "feeds on corruption and is marked by the stripes of cowardice." After a team of men in military fatigues ram the door down, Greitens walks in saying he's acting on behalf of former President Donald Trump's political movement, hunting "RINOs" -- a mocking abbreviation among conservatives, "Republicans In Name Only."
The ad was quickly pulled down by Facebook and labeled as "abusive" by Twitter. That's when Greitens' real ad campaign began.
As condemnation swiftly came from across the political spectrum, Greitens reveled in his sudden virality. A former Navy Seal, Greitens' political career was already filled with controversy, including accusations of sexual abuse and campaign finance violations that ultimately led him to resign his position as Missouri's governor in 2018. Now, he was again the center of attention. "Thank you to @WashingtonPost for hosting our video on their website!" Greitens tweeted, alongside a link to a story from the paper. "Everybody can visit the link below to see our new ad!"
Within the first 24 hours, Greitens claimed, his video had already been watched at least 3.5 million times. And to the outrage, he doubled down, calling his critics either liberal or "RINO snowflakes," while claiming his ad was meant to be humorous. The Missouri Fraternal Order of Police said in a statement at the time that the "deplorable" video "sends a dangerous message that it is somehow acceptable to kill those who have differing political beliefs." Greitens didn't respond to a request for comment.
The extreme ad marked the latest in a new class of political posts to social media designed to be censored, baking in outrage from all sides. The strategy bets on a phenomenon known as the Streisand Effect, where efforts to censor something brings far more attention than if it had been left alone in the first place. As a result, the ensuing drama helps the original post go that much further.
Though these types of ads aren't widespread, they are growing in popularity, marking a sign of how militantly extremist rhetoric is becoming part of mainstream Republican politics. Along with it, condemnation has turned into a badge of honor among radicals, rather than a critical tool meant to restrain them. As their viral posts go ever further, they supercharge fundraising efforts in the process.
Though the world of politics is somewhat new to the phenomenon of social media stardom through internet infamy, it's something the entertainment world's known for decades.
Musician Barbra Streisand became inexorably linked to the idea in 2003, when she sued a photographer for posting a photo of her Malibu seaside home on his website about coastal erosion. Only six people had downloaded the image before she sued, but media coverage of the case drew hundreds of thousands of people afterward.
Companies soon realized they could leverage infamy to get free advertising. Home beverage device maker SodaStream did exactly that in 2014, when it said it'd hired then-29-year-old movie star Scarlett Johansson to tape a steamy commercial for the Super Bowl. In it, Johansson praises the home-mixed soda while she suggestively sips from a straw.
Fox reportedly refused to run the ad without edits, and a wave of media attention followed, leading more than 3.5 million of people to watch the "banned" "uncensored" ad on YouTube before the game even began. Entrepreneur Magazine declared the fracas a coup for SodaStream, declaring "Want your ad to go viral? Get a TV network to ban it."
While other companies leveraged the "banned" label for attention, most stuck to suggestive themes. It's only been in recent years that the tactics have veered toward more extreme topics like violence.
Anger into clicks
Not all politicians are using violent rhetoric and lies to go viral. Moderates have learned, for example, that goading extremists into attacking them helps to spread their message too.
That's what longtime Republican strategist Reed Galen began work on when he co-founded a political action committee called the Lincoln Project in 2019, to attack Trump. Galen's group "didn't have that much money" to run traditional TV ads. So, instead, they began posting videos to social media.
In May 2020, as the presidential election was heating up, the group posted a video called Mourning in America, mimicking a popular spot from President Ronald Reagan's campaign but instead using it to attack Trump over his handling of the economy and COVID-19 pandemic. Trump railed against the ad on Twitter, helping it pull in more than 15 million views, as well as coverage from mainstream press.
"We're driving a message based on the fact that the candidate we're after doesn't like it," Reed said. "Social media isn't the real world, but it is real and it has the ability to bleed through."
On the right, there don't appear to be high-profile ad makers using these tactics but rather social media stars, pundits and politicians themselves. Extremist conservative media stars frequently go viral for their outlandish posts, and some have begun using a similar Streisand-like model where being "banned" is achievement.
Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene similarly turned her permanent suspension from Twitter in January for spreading COVID-19 disinformation into fundraising appeals, asking for "emergency contributions" to "fight big tech censorship" and the "Silicon Valley Cartel."
Though some online personalities have been able to turn outrage into larger fame and riches, it doesn't always stay that way. Conspiracist Alex Jones saw revenue for his InfoWars media empire skyrocket after Apple, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others kicked him from their platforms in 2018. They acted after Jones spent years spreading harassing lies about perceived enemies, including his years-long insistence the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre that killed 26 people, most of whom were children, was faked.
As for Greitens, the Missouri Republican Senate hopeful went from polling ahead of his opponents when posting his video this June to losing his primary bid in August.
Since then, he's only posted to Twitter twice. Both times, he claimed political opponents and his ex-wife had lied about him, without acknowledging the criticism he received from his own party. Greitens ultimately received less than 19% of votes cast, placing third in the primary. His 124,155 votes were less than half those of the winner.