When the famed businessman and former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain passed away last month, his daughter wrote a heartfelt tribute on his website pledging that the conservative folk hero’s family would continue promoting his message.
About halfway down the page, readers were presented with a yes-or-no survey question: “Are you glad Herman's team will keep his vision alive?” Fine print below the poll noted that those who completed it—and provided their email addresses as required—would be added to mailing lists run by a conservative news website called The Western Journal.
It was a glimpse into the conservative media and marketing apparatus that sprouted up to monetize Cain’s brand after his unsuccessful 2012 presidential run. And it helps explain why, even after Cain died last month after contracting COVID-19, social media accounts bearing his name have indulged right-wing critics of efforts to combat the virus’ spread. Cain himself may have succumbed to the virus, but his death hasn’t changed the fact that coronavirus content is a potent draw for conservative advertisers and internet marketers such as those in business with Cain’s media apparatus.
The most jarring example of that disconnect came on Sunday, when the Herman Cain twitter account—recently rebranded as The Cain Gang, but still tweeting under the same handle—shared a link to a Western Journal story with the caption: “It looks like the virus is not as deadly as the mainstream media made it out to be.”
The tweet was subsequently deleted. But it’s not the only content posted under the Cain brand that has questioned whether the panic around COVID was overblown.
It was not a coincidence that the deleted tweet on Sunday linked to the Western Journal. The site is owned by a conservative digital startup called Liftable Media, which began airing Cain’s online TV-style talk show beginning in 2018. In the years since, Cain heavily promoted Liftable content through his various social media channels. He even represented Liftable at a White House summit on social media censorship last year.
According to Ford Jordan, Liftable’s chief operating officer, a subsidiary of the company called Firefly Engagement has provided “back-end technology support to hermancain.com for a number of years,” but does not control any of the content on the site. The New York Times, in a 2019 report on Liftable’s dubious political news operation, described the relationship more broadly. Western Journal, it reported, had “absorbed [Cain’s] personal website.”
Asked whether Liftable had any advertising or content promotion agreements with Cain’s media business, Jordan referred questions to Cain’s team, which did not respond to inquiries.
What is apparent from the hermancain.com website is a close relationship between the site and Liftable media properties. Cain’s site and his social accounts, which now say they are run by his “team and family,” routinely link to those sites. Source code on the website shows that hermancain.com shares or has shared tracking and analytics codes associated with Liftable accounts on Facebook, Google, and Amazon. And the web domain westernjournal.com/hermancain redirects to hermancain.com.
Liftable’s business model relies in part on harvesting large numbers of email addresses through promotions like its hermancain.com survey, which it can then sell to advertisers. “We are proud to have one of the most engaged conservative audiences in the country,” its website boasts. “Introduce your brand to millions of passionate, politically active users across our influential network.”
Liftable is one of a number of companies that have sprouted up in the Trump era as alternative media sources that convert news-style content into lucrative advertising business. And it’s not the only company that successfully monetized the Cain brand. According to information on the hermancain.com website, it also works with another major conservative email and digital marketer to hawk political, nonprofit, and private sector brands to a huge list of Cain supporters.
Bryan Rudnick and his firm Alliance Strategies Group control and rent access to an email list called the Cain Blast. According to a description on an ASG website, the list consists of 150,000 email addresses associated with people who donated to Cain’s presidential campaign or his political action committee, or who signed up to receive updates through his website.
“These individuals are avid Trump supports [sic] and Tea Party backers with strong conservative views,” Rudnick’s firm says. “They are very concerned about the economy and taxation.” In addition to conservative political appeals, the website suggests hitting members of the Cain lists with ads for products in sectors including “alternative” finance, health and wellness, and disaster preparedness.
Rudnick didn’t respond to inquiries about his firm’s work with the Cain website.
The continued use of Cain’s website and social media pages to sell ads helps explain why content branded with his name has popped up since his death (his Facebook page, like his Twitter handle, continues to churn out content), and why its COVID-themed content appears so incongruous with the circumstances of Cain’s death. Political email advertisers and clickbait news websites rely on splashy headlines and subject lines that draw readers in with sensationalized, and often factually dubious, takes on current events. In the context of the coronavirus, that frequently means appeals to conservative voters skeptical of the scientific consensus on the dangers posed by the virus and the efficacy of public health guidelines designed to reduce its spread.
Cain’s website, for its part, has run other stories recently casting doubt on official pronouncements of the severity of the coronavirus—accompanied by yet another Western Journal survey asking, “Do you think the virus is weakening?” But it also disputed any dissonance between the fate of its namesake and the COVID-related content on the website.
“We ran a lot of pieces on this site... questioning the media’s narrative on the virus,” an editor wrote this month. “We weren’t questioning the reality or the seriousness of the virus. We were questioning the public response to it and the media coverage that drove much of it.”
Liftable Media, though, has been less discerning. “Death could possibly be an unintended consequence of wearing a mask,” Western Journal’s Facebook page warned in May. It linked to a Western Journal story that cited a study on the effects of mask-wearing that has since been retracted.
The Western Journal post also came just a few weeks after Cain, in his online Western Journal-branded show, urged viewers: “Everyone wear masks.”