Betting Big on Bad Behavior to Score Political Points

Originally published October 17, 2022

By Ian Sherr

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.

“They’re not stupid — they’re very good at grabbing attention,” said Mike Rothschild, a journalist whose book The Storm Is Upon Us dissects viral extremism among Trump supporters on social media. “It’s campaigning through trolling.”

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