It has grown increasingly manifest over the past decade that our corporate media overlords have discovered that dividing the nation with ‘culture war’ narratives and misinformation is the road to profitability. Fox News pioneered the model, only to be superseded in recent years by social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, whose profit-driven push for “engagement” has ensured that outrageous lies and smears have become the coin of the realm of public discourse, and radicalization and organization by right-wing extremists an accepted norm.
Twitter under Elon Musk has become the apotheosis of this model. While Musk has welcomed back to the platform an array of banned accounts—white nationalists, COVID disinformation artists, conspiracists, and a variety of far-right trolls—and helped generate radicalization and violence, a new report shows that Twitter is reeling in millions of advertising dollars through these accounts thanks to their massive “engagement”—and ads from companies like Apple and Amazon are now appearing next to content created by neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists, and antisemites.
The report, titled “Toxic Twitter,” by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), examined the top 10 Twitter accounts by followers among those restored under Musk’s “general amnesty” announced in late November. It found—based on a conservative estimate—that those 10 accounts are likely to generate around $19 million annually:
The analysis shows that the 10 accounts have already amassed 2.5 billion tweet impressions since Twitter rolled out publicly visible impression-counts on Dec. 15, 2022, putting them on track to reach 20 billion impressions over the course of a year. The Center has also found ads appearing next to toxic content from each of these reinstated accounts, showing how companies are putting their brand safety and consumer trust at risk by continuing to advertise on Twitter.
The top 10 influencers studied by the CCDH:
- Andrew Tate, currently under arrest in Romania on human-trafficking charges. Tate is a notorious misogynist who says rape victims “bear some responsibility” for being raped. Tate, who was a successful kickboxer, peddles the idea that men need to live up to their true “alpha” form, and says he believes men have gotten too soft.
- Robert Malone, a COVID-denialist doctor who claims, among other things, that the COVID vaccines are driving up rates of insanity. He also claims that the “science is settled” that the vaccines “are not working”.
- Andrew Anglin, the notorious neo-Nazi who founded the alt-right website Daily Stormer. Anglin is currently a federal fugitive on a federal warrant regarding the millions he owes following a lawsuit filed by the victims of trolling campaign he organized in Montana.
- Gateway Pundit, the far-right conspiracist news site run by Jim Hoft, widely regarded as “the dumbest man on the internet.” Hoft’s site has long hosted a ceaseless array of disinformation, which lately have included election-denialist claims that the 2022 election was stolen from Republicans. GP also features climate denial and COVID misinformation.
- Emerald Robinson, the onetime Newsmax reporter embedded in the White House Press Corps who was sacked for saying that COVID vaccines let authorities track people with a satanic bioluminescent marker. She was also suspended from Twitter then.
- Rogan O’Handley, a host for the far-right One America News (OAN), who refused to show viewers any footage of the Jan. 6 committee hearings, calling it a “clown show” and “unconstitutional.” He also recently amplified claims by vaccine conspiracist that Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin’s heart attack was caused by vaccines.
- Stew Peters, one of the chief progenitors of the anti-vaxxer “Died Suddenly” conspiracy theory, which claims that thousands of people are suddenly keeling over as a result of the COVID vaccine.
- Peter McCullough, a Texas doctor who was disavowed by Baylor Medical Center after he spread misinformation about the vaccines—and who cited a bogus “study” to claim that hundreds of European athletes had died suddenly after being vaccinated.
- Ronnie Steven “Rizza” Islam, a Scientologist and internet personality who claimed that “China has recovered without using vaccines” and denounced “wicked government-sponsored health assassination through strategically placed liquor stores, low-grade GMO food in stores and fluoridated water.” He also regularly posts antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.
- Anthime Gionet, known since his days as leading alt-right figure as “Baked Alaska,” is a white supremacist internet personality who was present for multiple violent far-right protests, including the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. He not only was present for the Jan. 6 insurrection, but invaded the Capitol and participated in the vandalization of Nancy Pelosi’s office (for which he has been sentenced).
When Gionet’s account was restored, he posted a tweet asking his followers whether he should “say the n-word.” The Washington Post noted that an ad for Peacock, the streaming service, appeared next to the tweet.
Indeed, the CCDH’s report found multiple instances in which ads for such major national brands as Apple TV, the NFL, and Fiverr appeared next to content from the 10 extremist influencers on its list. In one instance, a tweet from Peters referring to the COVID vaccine as a “BioWeapon” that had “murdered” people ran next to an ad for Wendy’s. Other brand-name ads, according to the CCDH, appeared adjacent to tweets promoting election denialism, COVID vaccine conspiracism, disinformation about Ukraine, and tweets denigrating women in business.
When the Post contacted these advertisers, they recoiled. “We don’t condone hateful content or dangerous conspiracy theories,” a spokesperson from Fiverr told the newspaper. “These campaigns have been removed, and our partners and teams have been alerted to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
Shortly after the Post first published its report on the CCDH findings, Fiverr announced it was stopping all advertising on Twitter.
Media Matters analysts found that the “general amnesty” had a similar effect in helping to spread antisemitism. It reviewed five different restored Twitter accounts “run by people who have pushed Holocaust denial: Mark Collett (MarkACollett), the Institute for Historical Review (HistoryinReview), E. Michael Jones (EMichaelJones1), Lana Lokteff (LanaLokteff), and Henrik Palmgren (Henrik_Palmgren).”
Brand-name companies’ ads ran on a number of these account pages, including ads from The Wall Street Journal, Nokia, FanDuel, Thermo Fisher, DataStax, Hedgeye, AdvisoryCloud, FinanceBuzz, Masterworks, and Mailchimp. Those advertisers spent nearly $30 million combined in 2022 on Twitter ads.
Those same antisemitic accounts, as Media Matters notes, “are also subscribed to Twitter Blue, the paid subscription service introduced by Musk that’s been a boon for scammers, misinformers, and hate speech. Musk recently stated that Twitter Blue accounts will be able to share revenue ‘that appear in their reply threads’.”
Musk has said the company is in dire financial straits despite the massive layoffs of thousands of employees under his watch, and so is working to generate revenue for the platform. According to the advertising research firm Standard Media Index, Twitter’s advertising revenue in December was 70 percent lower than the previous year.
Some industry experts have attributed the downward plunge in advertising revenue to concerns about the kinds of juxtaposition that are now occurring, and their damaging effect on well-established brands. “A lot of brands are scared of Twitter given Elon’s rhetoric,” Brendan Gahan of ad agency Mekanism told the Post. “He’s created an atmosphere that makes Twitter feel very unsafe for brands.”
Gahan noted that Twitter already is at a disadvantage with platforms like Facebook or YouTube because its advertising products are also considered less sophisticated. “When you take into account the economic climate right now, dollars need to work harder than ever,” he said. “Twitter was not in a great position even before Musk, and Musk creating turmoil has just made it easier for brands to walk away and not come back.”
Imran Ahmed, CCDH’s chief executive, said the restoration of the banned accounts is directly connected to the decline in ad revenue. “Our research shows that there is a depressingly banal answer to why Elon Musk would reinstate the accounts of self-professed Nazis, disinformation actors, misogynists and homophobes—it’s highly profitable,” he said.
He noted how powerful the reach of far-right influencers can be. “Just 10 of these reinstated bad actors will generate billions of Twitter views, all of which Elon Musk can sell to household brands and advertisers, such as Apple, Amazon, and the NFL. Brands’ ads are appearing right next to Nazi-level hate and lies that can kill,” he said.
Nandini Jammi, co-founder of the watchdog Check My Ads Institute, noted to the Post that the $19 million in revenue generated is only an estimate, though she agrees with the CCDH’s findings.
“Under Elon, the revenue model seems to rely on increasing rage-bait to create quick returns,” she said. “The takeaway from the report is that Twitter is generating massive amounts of revenue from the engagement these influencers are generating. The exact amount of revenue cannot precisely be known, because the digital advertising supply chain is so opaque, but we know it’s a lot of money.”
We're chatting with one of our favorite fellow election analysts on The Downballot, Kyle Kondik of Sabato's Crystal Ball. Kyle helped call races last year for CBS and gives us a rare window inside a TV network's election night decision desk, which literally has a big button to call control of the House—that no one got to press. Kyle also dives into his new race ratings for the 2024 Senate map, including why he thinks Joe Manchin's unlikely tight-rope act might finally come to an end.