The report comes as Musk is working to generate revenue for the company, which he has said is in dire financial straits despite the layoffs of thousands of employees and the suspension of payments for a number of services including rent on Twitter’s downtown San Francisco headquarters. Twitter’s advertising revenue in December was 70 percent lower than the previous year, according to data from Standard Media Index, an advertising research firm.
CCDH’s chief executive, Imran Ahmed, linked the drop off in ad revenue to the decision by Musk to restore formerly banned accounts. “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.
Musk did not immediately respond to request for comment. Twitter’s communications department was eliminated in layoffs last year.
The CCDH uncovered multiple examples of advertisements from major national brands, including Amazon, Apple TV, the NFL and Fiverr, that appeared next to content from the 10 extremist influencers. In one instance, an ad for Wendy’s appeared next to a tweet by Stew Peters, an anti-vaccine influencer with 168,000 followers, where he referred to the vaccine as a “BioWeapon” and claimed people have been “murdered” by it.
In another example, an ad for the streaming service Peacock appeared next to a tweet from Anthime Gionet, an influencer known as Baked Alaska, who was recently sentenced for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. The ad appeared next to a tweet where Gionet asked his followers whether he should “say the n-word.”
Brand advertisements also appeared next to tweets about election fraud, vaccine conspiracy theories, false statements about Ukraine and bio weapons, and tweets denigrating women in business, CCDH said.
Twitter’s drop-off in advertising revenue has been attributed in part to concerns that such juxtapositions would damage brands. “A lot of brands are scared of Twitter given Elon’s rhetoric,” said Brendan Gahan, chief innovation officer at Mekanism, an advertising agency. “He’s created an atmosphere that makes Twitter feel very unsafe for brands.”
Twitter’s advertising products are also considered less sophisticated than Facebook’s or YouTube’s, he noted. “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.”
“We don’t condone hateful content or dangerous conspiracy theories,” a spokesperson from Fiverr said. “These campaigns have been removed, and our partners and teams have been alerted to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
The 10 influencers CCDH considered in its survey are Andrew Tate, Robert Malone, Andrew Anglin, Emerald Robinson, Rogan O’Handley, Peter McCullough, Stew Peters, Anthime Gionet, Rizza Islam, and Gateway Pundit. All had their accounts removed from Twitter for violating rules before Musk restored them.
To conduct its survey, CCDH created new accounts on Twitter and followed the 10. Then CCDH calculated the advertising value of those accounts by taking publicly available information about the numbers of impressions the influencers’ tweets received and annualized that number, along with the frequency that ads are served to users. It then multiplied that result by an industry benchmark of the cost for 1,000 impressions. The rates were provided by the social media analytics firm Brandwatch, which shows that Twitter ads cost an average of $6.46 per 1,000 impressions.
“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,” said Ahmed.
Nandini Jammi, co-founder of Check My Ads Institute, a nonprofit adtech watchdog organization, said that she agreed with the CCDH findings, though she noted that the $19 million in revenue generated is an estimate.
“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.”
After threatening to “thermonuclear name and shame” advertisers who pulled their marketing dollars from the platform in November, Musk has been attempting to court them by offering free ad runs, lifting a ban on political advertising, and rolling out adjacency controls, which allow advertisers to limit their ads from appearing next to a list of up to 1,000 keywords.
In a deck sent out to large advertisers last month and viewed by The Washington Post, Twitter repeatedly touted the platform’s growth, claiming that daily active users were up 17.8 percent year over year.