Sixteen-year-old Casey, a high school student living in New York, has amassed more than 50,000 new Instagram followers since the start of this year. On his account, @FuriousPatriot, he churns out memes that lionise President Donald Trump and ridicule Democrats and the mainstream media. One is a manipulated image of the Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, asleep on a lectern; another is a Gif that calls Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, a “hoe” and simulates her performing oral sex. A third falsely accuses CNN of altering a photo to make a gunman’s skin appear lighter.
Amid the sea of memes, a new post stands out. It’s a paid promotion for a clothing brand’s fitted T-shirts, featuring an illustration of Trump dominating Biden in a wrestling match. This kind of ad, known as “sponcon″ (aka sponsored content) is common on Instagram – influencers regularly score endorsement deals and earn a commission from their followers’ purchases.
Casey doesn’t consider himself to be an influencer, and he certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype. Instagram starlets, who can earn salaries of up to six figures on the platform, are often conventionally attractive young women who grow their audiences with glamorous photos of themselves – lounging by the pool, luxury travelling, modelling lingerie – while profiting off the attention by shilling for brands.
But in recent years, the influencer marketing business model has given rise to a starkly different crop of entrepreneurial content creators – one led by young men and teenage boys like Casey. In lieu of selfies, they’ve found another niche that, with the help of Instagram’s powerful recommendation algorithm, has also proven highly effective at attracting followers (and brand deals) en masse: MAGA memes.
Casey is part of a sprawling network of ad-hungry memers reaching millions of followers. They chase growth at all costs by sharing a torrent of right-wing clickbait – often including content that crosses the line from snarky political satire to hyper-partisan misinformation and bigotry. Though they decry the “fake news” media, many accounts circulate falsehoods and conspiracy theories with roots in the far-right QAnon movement. And throughout the coronavirus pandemic, they have downplayed the crisis, demonising public health officials and railing against face masks. They also pander to their base by demeaning prominent female Democrats – especially those of colour – in crude and sexist ways.
This effort to capitalise on America’s fractured political climate, and Instagram’s amplification of inflammatory content, is working remarkably well. As election day looms, MAGA meme moguls are enjoying explosive surges in traffic, even earning “likes” and reposts or follows from Trump’s confidantes – including his sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump. Their thriving cottage industry serves as a free propaganda operation for the president’s campaign, and highlights the role that social media platforms play in fuelling political polarisation by incentivising the spread of hyper-partisan agitprop.
“Instagram is a gold mine,” Casey told HuffPost. “And it’s only getting better.”
Inside Teens’ Lucrative MAGA Meme Factory
There are hundreds of sponcon-soliciting MAGA meme accounts, ranging in size from a few thousand followers to well over 1 million. Many are fan pages for Trump and members of his inner circle, such as Donald Trump Jr., White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and representative Dan Crenshaw. Some are dedicated to trashing Biden, and other top Democrats like House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer. But the majority purport to be partisan news and satire pages, like Casey’s. Certain terms and themes frequently appear in the usernames of such accounts; there are umpteen variations on “patriot,” “libtard,” “deplorable” and “snowflake.”
The teen MAGA memer subculture contains both true believers and opportunists – and, sometimes, both. A staunch Republican, Casey started his account as a fun way to post about his political views, and never expected to have much of an audience. But he soon realised it could become much more.
“I saw other conservative meme pages posting ads, and I thought, ‘If I actually grow this account really big, I can do that to earn money on the side,’” the 10th grader, who also works part-time at a restaurant, told HuffPost over the phone.
“This is just a side hustle that I have. But I realized it has big potential.”
Casey began posting multiple times a day, and studied what kind of content would really drive traffic. It had to be incendiary, and fit a specific narrative. Once, when he shared a post questioning whether a police officer had unjustly shot someone during an arrest, he received angry messages and even lost some followers. He quickly realised he could get more likes and follows with memes that attacked star Democrat representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“Conservatives are more likely to be hating on her,” Casey explained. “We [memers] just do it to get followers. We’re not actually trying to make AOC look bad or anything – it’s just to grow our accounts.” And it does: “I hit 50K [followers] way before my expected goal,” he said. “As we get closer to the election, I feel like I’m going to grow even more.”
The young men who run these pages tend to describe themselves on Instagram in ways that emphasise both their age and their political valence: “16 year old patriot,” “teen Republican,” “20 year old conservative,” “Political Teen,” “15 Year Old Die Hard Trump Supporter,” pro-Trump “high schooler.” Like other savvy influencers, they often appear in live-streamed videos to engage with their followers, who tend to be much older. Those who spoke to HuffPost said their audiences consist mainly of “Boomers.” The owners of many meme accounts are minors, and HuffPost is protecting their identities as requested (including Casey, whose name has been changed).
For Daniel, the 21-year-old Nevada resident behind the QAnon-promoting meme page @TrumpsPlans, ad requests slowly started rolling in after he passed 10,000 followers a few months ago. Now he has more than 40,000 followers and says he receives more marketing requests than he can handle – posting ads too frequently can scare off followers, after all. Last month, he said, he earned $1,200.
“This is just a side hustle that I have,” Daniel added, “but I realised it has big potential.”
‘DM For Business’
Most MAGA memers openly solicit marketing partnerships right in their Instagram bios with requests for brands to direct-message them, such as “💰DM For Business💰,” “📩Msg for biz promo” and “DM FOR AD RATES!!!” Often, novice pages will pay bigger ones to promote them and help them grow through shoutouts in posts or Instagram Stories.
When it comes to brands, successful MAGA memers work almost exclusively with little-known firms that are seeking targeted exposure to sell their Trump swag or apparel. Typical ad deals include posts that display a company’s products or promotions (often including “free” giveaways that are actually bait-and-switch schemes), along with captions instructing people to click the “link in bio” to visit the company’s website. The Proud Republicans, Keep Gifts Great, The Patriot Factory, Trump Face Mask 2020, Right Revolt, Bold Eagle USA, The MAGA Shop, Republican Gadgets, The Louder Party, Crusader Outlet, Trump Collection Co. and numerous others have all partnered with memers to peddle their products.
Although the Federal Trade Commission orders influencers and brands to clearly and conspicuously disclose their paid relationships on Instagram and other platforms, this rule is poorly enforced. A representative for Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, directed HuffPost to a Facebook policy page for its branded content tool, which makes it easy to label posts as ads. But MAGA memers almost never use it, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that a post is sponsored rather than an independent endorsement.
This marketing approach can be more cost-efficient than traditional advertising strategies. Unlike TV or radio ads, the meme pages’ posts reach a very specific audience of people who share a common interest – in this case, Trump – and many young memers offer better rates than digital ad giants such as Facebook and Google. Daniel charges around $10 to $15 to keep a sponsored post up on his page for 24 hours before deleting it; Casey charges $30.
It’s not much to start out with, but as MAGA meme pages grow, they can generate more income for their owners. Casey said that when he asked a conservative memer who has close to 2 million followers for a shoutout post, the given rate was $400 for a single hour. And in the current political climate, these pages can quickly become huge.
Rogan O’Handley, a millennial from Tampa, Florida, left a career in finance law to launch his pro-Trump meme account, @DC_Draino, shortly after the 2016 election. The page now boasts 1.5 million followers and a bio that reads, in part, “DM FOR BUSINESS.” Between ads, his content centres around political news and is occasionally reposted by Donald Trump Jr., who on Instagram calls himself “General in the Meme Wars.” O’Handley’s influence has grown so large that the White House invited him to attend its Social Media Summit last year.
O’Handley did not respond to a request for an interview. His page appears to be a passion project that’s sustained by frequent ads, but his success has been inspiring to many memers who aggressively solicit brand deals in hopes of cashing in on inflamed political tensions ahead of the election. O’Handley has even offered advice to conservatives starting new pages. “Just do it,” he wrote in an Instagram Story. “Every meme counts.”
In an effort to reach his level, many memers chasing ad deals post inflammatory content to drive traffic – whether it comes in the form of support from fellow conservatives, or angry comments from liberals.
“That stuff honestly helps me,” Casey said. “[My followers] will respond and just boost my engagement, so hey, I like it getting hate comments.”
Working The Algorithm
Memers hoping to go viral often traffic in racism, misogyny and misinformation. But some are reckoning with the consequences of spreading such content. Daniel, who has posted memes accusing Biden of pedophilia and calling antifa activists a “complete waste of semen,” told HuffPost he’s trying to cut down on sharing divisive posts because he doesn’t like pitting people against each other.
“Some meme pages go too far,” he said. “It shouldn’t just be about offending people.”
Days later, however, he posted a video of a man dressed as Trump picking up a woman dressed as Hillary Clinton and throwing her over his shoulder onto the ground. It quickly racked up tens of thousands of views.
This kind of polarising and prejudicial content is reminiscent of the meme-based Facebook operation that Russia launched ahead of America’s 2016 election to divide and manipulate voters. Although the MAGA memers’ objectives are less nefarious, and primarily financial, they’re still exploiting and exacerbating political divisions ahead of one of the most important elections in American history. And Instagram is helping them do it.
“A lot of these pages are just in it for the money ... they see it as a job.”
The kinds of memes described above frequently appear in Instagram’s algorithmically curated hashtag and explore feeds. This helps them reach new people who don’t already follow the memers’ accounts, and incentivises the memers to shell out even more disinformation and hateful propaganda. Instagram regularly rewards such content with increased visibility. When you search for #MichelleObama on Instagram, for example, one of the top results is #MichelleObamaIsAMan – a reference to the meme-fueled conspiracy theory that the former first lady is a trans woman.
As with most social media platforms, Instagram’s recommendation engine was designed to show users whatever content it algorithmically determines will keep them on the app for the longest period of time, because their attention is the commodity that Instagram sells to its own advertisers. Influencers know this well, and they’ve learned how to consistently produce the kind of attention-grabbing content that stimulates algorithmic promotion – whether it’s pretty selfies, fashion inspo or polarising clickbait.
Instagram’s role in propagating fake news and hate speech in this way has largely flown under the radar. Although it partners with third-party fact-checking organisations to apply labels to posts that contain misinformation, it does not remove them. It also announced a policy last week aimed at stifling the spread of QAnon content, but has yet to implement it.
Unlike platforms such as YouTube, Instagram doesn’t give its users an opportunity to earn a cut of the ad revenue they generate, so financially, there’s less of a direct incentive to try to gain lots of followers or go viral (through incendiary content or otherwise). But Instagram is the backbone of the influencer marketing economy – which is projected to be worth $15 billion by 2022, nearly doubling in three years – and the app’s recommendation engine can rapidly turn content creators into social media sensations who attract brand deals like flies.
Many of the memers who talked to HuffPost insisted that they receive no algorithmic amplification, and in fact claimed they’re actually victims of political censorship through “shadow-banning,” echoing the false narrative that Big Tech is biased against conservatives. Yet in captions on their Instagram posts, they regularly instruct viewers to follow them – indicating that they’re not only aware they’re reaching new people through Explore and hashtag pages, but that they’re counting on such promotion as a way to grow their accounts.
Literal Fake News
Outside of algorithmic amplification, MAGA memers commonly resort to cheap tactics to gain followers. One page will post a doctored tweet that typically appears to show a Democratic politician calling for another meme account to be taken offline for spouting hate speech – along with a message urging people to go follow that account to show support. (The supposedly targeted account will then return the favour, posting a similarly doctored tweet and directing people to follow the other page.) They also share fake Instagram notifications as “evidence” that they’ve been shadow-banned, and fake news headlines that purport to show major news outlets calling for their deplatforming.
“I know it’s dumb, but it works,” Casey said, noting the fake-tweet technique can earn him as many as 1,000 new followers at a time. “It’s really easy. There’s even an app you can use.”
Such posts may seem like obvious hoaxes, but people still fall for them – likely in part because they look up to the influencers who share them. One post shows a doctored tweet supposedly written by 17-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, which says: “It’s unbelievable how offensive the Trump Campaign account @trumpfact on Instagram can be. They said ‘Merry Christmas’ rather than ‘Happy Holidays.’” In a maelstrom of angry comments, people responded by calling Thunberg a “brat,” an “asshole” and “stupid eurotrash.” One user called for someone to “shove something in her mouth long enough to shut her up, and give her a nice warm feeling in her throat at the end.”
“Some stuff I post, it’s just because it will get likes.”
The MAGA meme community is so rife with disinformation and deceptive advertising that it has triggered internal criticism.
“It’s kind of a scam,” said 15-year-old Reed Cooper, who asked to be identified by his real name, which he displays on his meme page, @GodBlessDJT. “A lot of these pages are just in it for the money. I mean no offence – I’ve talked to a lot of them, and they see it as a job.”
The Virginia-based high schooler features Trump quotes, Bible verses and QAnon conspiracies on his account, which he started in January and which now has more than 40,000 followers. But he doesn’t run ads – his dream is to get so popular through social media that he has an opportunity to meet Trump.
“I wear Trump shirts everywhere I go,” he said. “I guess you could say I’m obsessed.”
Donald Trump Jr. even reposted one of his memes, branded with Cooper’s original logo – but failed to tag or credit him. Cooper still hopes the “Meme Wars” general will follow him back. In the meantime, he’s using his page to help “rally the base” ahead of November.
While Casey espouses the same views, his priority – like that of many teens in the MAGA meme sphere – remains a financial one. After shilling for so many Republican apparel brands on Instagram, he hopes to start his own someday. He’s dedicated to doing whatever he can to draw in new followers and build up a future customer base.
Asked if he actually believes in the divisive messaging behind the memes he posts, or if he ever considers their impact, the teenager paused for a moment.
“No,” he said. “Some stuff I post, it’s just because it will get likes. But am I trying to post my beliefs, or am I trying to grow something I can turn into a bigger business down the road?”