Late in December, some of the conservative movement’s biggest influencers gathered at the Monarch Theatre in Downtown Phoenix for what was advertised as “the biggest patriot’s party ever.”
Inside, the DJ played a club remix of the “Let’s go, Brandon!” chant, while a curly-haired kid wearing a proper button-up and slacks swang from an aerial hoop above the stage. James O’Keefe, right-wing political activist and founder of Project Veritas, posed for selfies with eager, young fans as the music boomed. Organizers said Matt Gaetz, the Florida lawmaker currently embroiled in scandal amid allegations of child sex trafficking, made an appearance earlier in the night.
The partygoers were in town for AmericaFest, Turning Point USA’s final student activism conference of the year. But while the official speaker list focused on Fox News regulars like Gaetz, the party was geared towards younger influencers, drawn together by Turning Point’s ambassador program. Some of them were lifestyle influencers, while others ran communications for Republican congressmen in Washington like Madison Cawthorn. Many already had podcasts and brand deals. At the event, they wore special badges giving them access to a VIP lounge in the convention center only a few blocks from the hotel rooms Turning Point had booked for them.
For nearly a decade, Turning Point USA has served as a new kind of College Republican club, setting up a network of campus organizations through its chapter program. But in recent years, the organization has moved beyond on-campus organizing to something more ambitious, launching podcasts and online shows with an eye towards fostering young Republican influencers online.
Increasingly, those influencers are Turning Point’s focus — finding ways to promote them, popularize them, and integrate them into the broader world of conservative media and politics. Instead of the campus, Turning Point is now focused on the politics of Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube and using them to reach a new generation of voters. With platforms increasingly willing to ban conservative voices who violate platform rules, it’s a difficult task and an urgent one for conservatives who fear they’re losing their sway with younger voters.
The project comes with real money. Turning Point’s 2021 investor prospectus set the budget for its media branch (which handles influencer outreach) at over $7.2 million. The organization has onboarded and trained over 400 creators as brand ambassadors, a number verified on social media and in a Turning Point Quizlet account that was taken down shortly after The Verge contacted the organization for comment.
While Turning Point hires talent to host their in-house productions, these unpaid “ambassadors” make up a much larger portion of the organization’s brand media output. As TPUSA’s most recent press kit described it, ambassadors “use their platforms to help share our message with their audiences.”
At the same time, Turning Point seems to have struggled spreading its message on social media through conventional channels. An internal presentation obtained by The Verge found that, as of October, only 15 percent of Turning Point’s Instagram audience are student-aged.
“The content that is going out right now is completely missing our target audience,” the report concludes.
Reached for comment, Turning Point denied many of the figures in the presentation. “The presentations in question contain multiple inaccuracies and erroneous data,” a representative said. “They are not official TPUSA documents.”
Still, additional details provided by the group confirmed the accuracy of the Instagram age statistics. “Some of the user demographics are inherent to the user base that exists on Instagram,” Andrew Kolvet, Turning Point spokesman, said on Wednesday. The presentations were removed shortly after The Verge contacted Turning Point for comment.
In order to appeal to their target audience, the presentation called for a total revamp of Turning Point’s social media accounts. Specifically, it outlined an “influencer first” and “conservative second” posting model and for the organization to present itself more like Barstool Sports online.
At the national conference in December, Turning Point appeared to follow that advice, despite an organization spokesperson telling The Verge that it is “proudly conservative first.” For two days before the conference officially began, dozens of ambassadors were invited to an “influencer retreat” where Turning Point founder Charlie Kirk and prominent Republican creators like Benny Johnson taught them how to become effective posters in the right’s online culture war with the left.
In one presentation slide explaining how to stay out of the news, Turning Point told the ambassadors what not to post online. “NO RACISM!” “NO BIGOTRY!” “PROVOCATIVE BUT MAINSTREAM!” the slide read.
In a conference room, Kirk pleaded with the attendees to stop getting into public fights with each other on the timeline. “Let me just say one thing that bothers us at Turning Point, and I try to never participate in it. When I see some of you guys fighting back and forth, like just cut it out. You guys think you’re being all tough,” he said in an Instagram story published by the user @tokenblackguyusa. “No one really cares. Nobody wants to see it. If it’s a private messaging service, you guys can do that.”
Turning Point did not immediately provide additional slides or posting guidelines when asked for comment on Tuesday.
Much of the conference itself was built for content creation. Dozens of ring lights were set up in front of Turning Point-branded backdrops around the exhibitor’s hall. Walking to the speaker stage, I watched as hoards of students and influencers bobbed their heads to trending TikTok audios and hosted livestreams in front of them all throughout the conference.
Ambassadors don’t draw a salary, but the organization rewards them in other ways. Some, like Laura Lee Spears, advertise their Turning Point merch store codes on Instagram. On Wednesday, Turning Point said that ambassadors do not receive commissions off of merch sales. Once an influencer is approved as an ambassador, they’re allowed to apply for travel stipends to attend Turning Point’s conferences in states all across the country. These trips are not only content creation opportunities but networking ones for more politically-hungry young people as well.
The push for conservative influencers has also led to spinoff groups like Today Is America, an influencer management organization that manned a booth at AmericaFest. Managed by former Turning Point ambassador Joe Basrawi, Today Is America currently manages over 200 creators, including the now-banned Republican Hype House TikTok account and a handful of other shows and podcasts.
“Turning Point’s focus is students. Ours is specifically creators,” Basrawi told me of Today Is America on Monday. “We made our whole thing to essentially lift up young, conservative creators, give them a brand, and give them the tools that they need to do what they want.”
Turning Point and Today Is America have no formal partnership, Basrawi said, but they operate in the same ecosystem and often end up boosting each other’s content. “We’re in group chats with other organizations, like Turning Point USA,” the founder said in a 2020 interview.
Building a strong network to help game social media algorithms is a long-standing technique for influencers. Last year, Vice reported on “influencer pods,” groups of influencers who boost each other’s content. Turning Point and Today Is America have essentially built one of these pods for conservatives, many of whom believe platforms like Facebook and TikTok suppress their content due to its conservative nature.
“I have some really close friends that are also bigger on social media, and we had this agreement that we would share each other’s content on [Instagram] stories,” Basrawi told me. “So, that’s one way of fighting the shadowban.”
Sometimes, those techniques go too far. In September 2020, the Washington Post uncovered a secret social media campaign from Turning Point to pay teenagers to post content casting doubt on the integrity of the presidential election in battleground states like Arizona, where the organization is based. After the Post reached out to Facebook and Twitter for comment on these accounts, the platforms removed them. Facebook said that the removed accounts were using false names and that their “sole activity on our platform was associated with this deceptive campaign.”
The structure of the ambassador program also lets Turning Point sidestep most existing disclosure requirements. Existing influencer rules from the Federal Trade Commission only deal with paid posts, as when an influencer gets a free product or money in exchange for posting about it. But even though Turning Point’s influencers get lots of in-kind help — including, in many cases, paid travel to AmericaFest — that support isn’t linked to a specific post, so it doesn’t fall under FTC rules.
“It gets a lot trickier to disclose relationships with Turning Point and other organizations that have a broader mandate around spreading conservative values that aren’t specific to one election or referendum,” said Brandi Geurkink, who wrote a report on conservative influencers for the Mozilla Foundation last year. “The fact that this might be algorithmically-promoted to a person through their For You page, what kind of information would we want disclosed to people on the receiving end of this content?”
Some ambassadors do disclose their status with the organization in the bios of their Instagram accounts. However, Turning Point did not comment on whether these disclosures are a requirement for associated influencers.
The federal government has been slow to institute new regulations around political advertising online, whether it be through digital ads on platforms like Facebook or the use of influencer marketing like in the case of Turning Point. Throughout the last presidential election cycle, Joe Biden’s campaign became the first to invest heavily into influencer marketing initiatives to persuade voters. These relationships proved as fruitful for Biden just as they have been for Turning Point, and experts expect to see the industry become more prevalent in politics over the next few years.
It’s difficult to measure the effect Turning Point’s influencer program is having on younger voters — but experts say it’s likely to be something that builds up over time.
“If we’re trying to judge efficacy, it’s hard because impressions on the internet are a dime a dozen,” Stefan Smith, former online engagement editor for the Pete Buttigieg campaign, said in an interview on Tuesday. “But enough six seconds can build up over several months, and you’re seeing the same conservative YouTube ad pop up in your recommended videos. Suddenly, the view becomes way more mainstream.”
With Fox News broadcasting partnerships and relationships with high-profile Republican lawmakers, Turning Point’s messaging efforts have at least broken through to mainstream conservative media. Now, the organization faces an even bigger task — bringing that message to the unindoctrinated.
“You need to not care what they call you when you say something that is true,” Kirk bellowed in his opening night AmericaFest remarks, warning of the libs and their cancel culture tactics. “We live under the tyranny of their social conformity. We live under the tyranny that they hold the cards. Like well, ‘I might not be invited to the cool kids club.’”
“Look around,” Kirk said, gesturing to the thousands of high school and college students in the audience. “You’re at the coolest kids club in America right now.”
Updated January 5th, 2022 at 2:36PM ET: Added additional comment from Turning Point disclosing that ambassadors do not receive commissions off of merch sales and the organization is “proudly conservative first.”