The Shift: Political Donors Put Their Money Where the Memes Are

The Shift: Political Donors Put Their Money Where the Memes Are

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“There was a ton of anger on the left and many progressives looking for something to do,” Mr. Eldridge told me in an interview. “Particularly on social media, the existing political media was pretty slow to respond.”

That page quickly grew to have 1.1 million followers, and has expanded beyond graphics and news stories to include efforts like a Facebook bot that helped more than 100,000 users send faxes to their representatives. For Mr. Eldridge, the return on investment has been shockingly high.

“We’ve spent in the low six figures to reach, on average, 10 million people a week,” he said.

Donor excitement about social media organizing, he added, is a “natural evolution toward a skepticism of TV and paid media, where you can spend a lot of money very quickly and not be sure what you’re getting for it.”

An image from Milo Inc., a media outfit built around the alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

The ubiquity of social media, coupled with the low cost of production, has tempted donors from both parties. Palmer Luckey, the co-founder of the Facebook-owned virtual reality company Oculus, scandalized Silicon Valley last year by revealing that he had given $10,000 to Nimble America, a group that planned to place right-wing memes on billboards, T-shirts and other products. Mr. Luckey, who subsequently left Facebook, explained in a statement that he “thought the organization had fresh ideas on how to communicate with young voters.”

Nimble America has since folded, according to a representative who responded to an email sent to the group.

Wealthy donors aren’t newcomers to partisan media start-ups. The Huffington Post was conceived after John Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, and was supported at its outset by a slate of Democratic boosters including Arianna Huffington and the venture capitalist Kenneth Lerer. The Daily Caller, a conservative web publication, got its start in 2010 with $3 million in funding from the Republican megadonor Foster Friess.

What distinguishes the current wave of donors is a focus on social media — Facebook in particular — and a willingness to fund newcomers without ties to the media establishment.

John Sellers, a left-wing organizer and former Greenpeace activist, started a Facebook page called The Other 98% several years ago to promote his views on environmentalism, corporate greed and other progressive causes. The page has five million followers, and its nonprofit affiliate has received funding from donors including Open Society Foundations, a group backed by the progressive billionaire George Soros.

Civic Ventures, an organization founded by the Seattle venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, has paid partnerships with several popular left-wing Facebook pages, including The Other 98% and Occupy Democrats.

Zach Silk, the president of Civic Ventures, credited these pages with building support for some of the organization’s key issues, including the “Fight for 15” movement, in which fast-food workers advocated a higher minimum wage.

“There’s real soul-searching going on” among donors, Mr. Silk said, “and a real interest in finding these other mediums to communicate.”

An image from Milo Inc.

“You don’t need a complicated website with hundreds of white papers,” he added. “You need quick, memeable, shareable content.”

While some social publishers are structured as nonprofits, many are for-profit businesses that more closely resemble internet start-ups. Milo Inc., which has nearly 20 employees cranking out content for Mr. Yiannopoulos’s 2.2 million Facebook fans, claims to have raised $12 million from a group of investors in order to “cultivate an entire next generation” of conservative internet personalities.

BuzzFeed reported last month on documents that suggested that Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who contributed heavily to the Trump campaign, were supporting Mr. Yiannopoulos in his efforts. But Alexander Macris, the chief executive of Milo Inc., told me that while the group had pitched the Mercers on a potential stake, the investment hadn’t materialized. (Through a spokesman, the Mercers declined to comment.)

Conservatives, it is generally acknowledged, have so far had the upper hand in the viral content wars. Mr. Trump spent many millions less than his opponents did on traditional TV advertising, but benefited from an army of amateur creators who flooded social media with pro-Trump messages.

The edgy, boundary-crossing humor beloved by the “memelords” who fill Reddit and 4 Chan was a natural fit for the Trump campaign’s loose-cannon messaging style, and it worked. According to a study by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, who analyzed high-performing social media posts during the final two months of the campaign, nearly two-thirds of the most popular election tweets were either anti-Clinton or pro-Trump.

Now, some Democrats are hoping to close that gap by building their own viral content studios. Reid Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn, and Mark Pincus, a co-founder of Zynga, announced this year that they had spent $500,000 to establish a group called Win the Future, which would, among other things, allow users to vote for popular user-generated messages to be turned into real-life billboards in Washington.

David Brock, the well-known Democratic operative, announced last year that he was raising $40 million to support a network of left-wing organizations that would rival Breitbart, the conservative digital publisher. Shareblue, Mr. Brock’s viral news outfit, has amassed 1.4 million Facebook followers by specializing in what it calls “practical, factual content to delegitimize Trump’s presidency.”

Donor funding is no guarantee of success for partisan publishers — as with all viral internet content, there are limits to what money can buy. But given the outcome of the presidential election, Democrats may have no other choice than to enter the meme wars.

“This was the missing piece of the progressive infrastructure,” said Jess McIntosh, Shareblue’s executive editor, who worked as Mrs. Clinton’s director of communications outreach during the 2016 campaign. “Everyone understands that what gets shared online matters now.”

Correction: August 6, 2017

An earlier version of this column misspelled the surname of the right-wing commentator behind Milo Inc. He is Milo Yiannopoulos, not Yiannopolous.

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