After right-wing influencers and online provocateurs flocked to the White House earlier this month for a summit on how they’d been suppressed across social media, a remarkable thing happened: Their social media audiences soared.
President Trump and his allies spent the summit criticizing the tech giants for supposedly silencing conservative voices through “tremendous dishonesty, bias, discrimination and suppression,” as Trump announced in a tweet.
But the bemoaning of social media persecution proved to be an incredible marketing opportunity, allowing many to attract new fans and followers at a rate far faster than they had before the summit. In the nearly two weeks since the summit, 15 of the event’s invitees have seen their Twitter audiences grow by a combined 197,000 followers — a 75 percent jump over the number of followers they’d gained in the same time span before the event, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the social media tracking site Social Blade.
On Wednesday, they put that new reach to good use, mobilizing on social media against the testimony of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, whom they derided as a “senile,” “doddering” and compromised old man who had led a “leftist” “hit-job.” One invitee who’d met with Trump in the Oval Office earlier this month, an anonymous tweeter using the name “mad_liberals,” posted a meme of Mueller, a former FBI director who is one year older than Trump, seated with the “Golden Girls.”
“RT (retweet) if you think the Mueller Investigation was a Witch Hunt!” tweeted Ryan Fournier, an attendee at the summit and the co-founder for the political group Students for Trump who’s gained 5,000 followers since the summit. In less than half an hour, it was retweeted 1,000 times.
The growing audiences show how allegations of censorship have become an established route to conservative social media celebrity, as Trump-backed firebrands rally support for themselves and unify their audiences against a faceless tech-industry oppression.
Far from silenced, the 15 invitees whose social media use The Post analyzed tweeted more than 6,300 times after the summit, helping Trump wage war against four Democratic congresswomen, promote his appearances and propel his viewpoints about federal spending, defense and immigration.
Pulled from the fringes, these online commentators have been validated, promoted and energized by the White House like never before, political and social-media researchers said. And in return, the right-wing personalities have used the added exposure to boost Trump’s messaging, mount attacks against his opponents and shape the public’s understanding of current events.
"The people who are claiming censorship have monetized that content and grown very large audiences for that content,” said Francesca Tripodi, a James Madison University assistant professor who researches media manipulation and testified at a congressional hearing last week on social media suppression.
Complaints of censorship have been turned into an “impressive and effective digital marketing strategy,” she said, especially given how much they’ve benefited from social media’s people-reaching power. “These platforms are actively amplifying their content, not silencing it,” she said.
The White House declined to comment.
Trump, his promoters and some Republican politicians have routinely claimed that Silicon Valley has weaponized a bias against conservative thought by using secretive techniques such as follower-limiting “shadowbans.” They have never provided evidence for those allegations, which Facebook, Google and Twitter have vigorously denied, saying political opinions are not a factor in how the sites are designed or run.
Conservative activists’ anecdotal charges of suppression often have been undermined by the size of their online followings — though some have argued that their audiences would be even bigger without Big Tech’s thumb on the scale.
When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) at last week’s hearing held up the conservative radio host Dennis Prager as a victim of Google censorship, Karan Bhatia, a Google policy executive and former senior official during the George W. Bush administration, was quick to note that Prager’s YouTube channel had more than 2 million followers. “Mr. Prager is a YouTube success story,” Bhatia said.
Conservative claims of censorship are not new, but they have found a powerful crusader in Trump, who spent much of the summit bemoaning his own follower count and wistfully recounting the days when a tweet of his would go viral. “I used to watch it,” he said. “It would be like a rocket ship when I put out a beauty.”
Trump also asserted that supporters had come up to him to say, “I can’t follow you. They make it impossible,” due to some unexplained digital trap. “There’s no doubt in my mind that I should have millions and millions — so many people, I wouldn’t believe it. But I know that we’ve been blocked,” Trump said.
In the days since his airing of grievances, Trump, too, has seen a huge pickup, gaining nearly 400,000 followers — including 22,000 on the day of the summit alone. A cinematically produced video of the summit, in which Trump called for “more freedom” from “corporate censors,” attracted 15,000 retweets, 52,000 likes and more than 2 million views.
On Wednesday, Trump’s 25-million-follower Facebook page received more than 160,000 comments, shares and reactions ― more than every major U.S. news and politics site, except for Breitbart and Fox News, according to data from the social media tracking site CrowdTangle. One of Trump’s posts advertised a $34 T-shirt featuring a caricature of House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) with a clown nose and “pencil neck.” (The proceeds were said to go to a group helping fund Trump’s reelection campaign.)
That effect has carried over to Trump’s political boosters. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who said “the truth is that the social media giants would love to shut us down,” has gained nearly 9,000 followers since the summit, compared to about 2,000 in the weeks before.
Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr., who has gained 36,000 followers since the summit, is also expected to capitalize on that complaint in November with the release of his book, “Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us.” “This is the book the leftist elites don’t want you to read! Pre-order now,” he tweeted this week.
The summit’s attendees included Bill Mitchell, a radio host and promoter of the QAnon conspiracy theory; James O’Keefe, a right-wing activist whose Project Veritas group tried to trick Washington Post reporters in 2017 into reporting phony claims from a woman that Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, had impregnated her as a teenager; and Ali Alexander, who tweeted after the first Democratic presidential debate that Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) was not an “American Black."
All have targeted Trump’s enemies beforehand, often mimicking his criticism of Democrats, the media and the Russia probe, and all have gained thousands of followers in the weeks since. Mitchell ― who announced his White House invite by saying “We are #MAGANation and we will not be silenced!” ― tweeted Wednesday that Democrats were “not a physically attractive bunch,” that the QAnon conspiracy theory had “huge international” support, and that “Trump’s brain has clearly aged better than Bob Mueller’s.”
Another invitee known by the online name “Carpe Donktum,” a stay-at-home dad who has preferred to stay anonymous, had attracted an audience before the summit: His memes — including a spoof of Joe Biden’s apology video, in which the former vice president is caressing himself, and an animation of Trump staying president forever — have been seen tens of millions of times and been retweeted by the president himself.
But the summit corresponded with a huge boost in his follower base, which in two weeks has grown more than 20 percent. Along with the user “mad_liberals,” he was invited to a separate 20-minute meeting with the president in the Oval Office earlier this month. On Wednesday, he tweeted that Mueller was a “joke” and shared memes showing Rep. Schiff dressed as the bumbling “Pink Panther” Inspector Clouseau.
The self-described “memesmith” has attempted to convert the online quasi-stardom into a stable revenue stream. On the crowdfunding service Patreon, Carpe Donktum offers exclusive memes and other content to supporters who pay for a monthly subscription. “For the fourth time this year, POTUS tweeted one of my memes!” he wrote last month. “Such an Honor!”
David J. Harris Jr., who wrote a book on his “battle as a black conservative” called “Why I Couldn’t Stay Silent,” has seen his Twitter audience grow by more than 30,000 followers in the two weeks since the summit, during which a smiling Trump held up his book, according to a video Harris posted to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. In the two weeks before the summit, he gained fewer than 3,000 followers.
Harris said he and his wife were running a company selling vitamins and dietary supplements in 2016 when he went onto Facebook to write a Trump-supporting post during one of the presidential debates. After that post went viral, he said, he was inspired to spend more time online “sharing my voice hoping it would wake people up.”
But Harris said he started noticing some “irregularities” on Facebook in recent months that prevented him from monetizing his content fully. He also said the site does not automatically suggest his account when people begin typing his name into a search box, which he called proof of “suppression and shadow-banning.” He tweeted a video last month showing a drop in his Facebook traffic, which he said revealed how Facebook “lynches black conservatives.” The video was viewed more than 300,000 times.
“It was literally almost overnight that Facebook shut it off,” he said. “You can’t explain that away.”
Harris’s vigorous defenses of Trump have proved to be an effective tool for building an online fandom. On Tuesday, Harris called the “Russian Hoax” an operation by “Obama’s right hand man!!!” and shared Trump’s tweet about “ridiculous” impeachment hearings, adding the comment “BOOM!”
The “fake news,” he said, doesn’t want you to know “why I call the [media] the new kkk, or why I 100% support my President!” he said in a post-summit tweet that was retweeted nearly 9,000 times. “But I share it all in my book!”
To help capitalize on that attention, Harris, who lives in Texas, runs an online storefront that sells branded Trump-themed merchandise, including a $55 “Wake Up America!” sweatshirt and a $35 “Harris: Making America Great” unisex tank top.
Harris’s huge growth in followers, he said, does not contradict claims of censorship. If anything, he believes it’s proof of how unfair the Internet has become.
“While I might be able to reach a few hundred thousand with suppression, I could reach millions without it,” he said. “Who knows how far it could grow?”