If you are wondering what medium is supplanting TV in this election year of many candidates and shrinking television audiences, just look in the mirror. It’s you.
Not only you, of course. Your friends and family have been recruited too, in ways whose origins are often obscure or even actively hidden. Curiously, this does not seem to bother many on the political left who share this anonymized media even as they decry “dark money” when it funds speech with which they disagree.
A recent example cropped up on my Facebook news feed. My wife, and also one of my cousins, shared an image featuring text that criticized Donald Trump in front of a black and white picture of the candidate’s face. That text, a quote from retired Air Force Col. Tom Moe, paraphrased Martin Niemoller’s famous poem about how the Nazis came for everyone else before they finally came for him. The image, however, did not include Niemoller’s name or refer to his work. When I commented on the post to bring up Niemoller, I thought my wife expressed her point of view perfectly by quoting him in response and adding her observation that history repeats itself.
If someone wants to compare Trump to the Nazis using a famous quotation, that’s fine with me. I have already gone on the record, in my own words, as being no fan of his, even if I think the overdrawn comparison demonizes Trump and trivializes the Nazis by lumping them together. But it is only fair to Niemoller and the audience that the comparison be clear enough for most of the audience to recognize it. And my wife’s views in her own words carry a lot more weight with me than the bumper-sticker quotation of the original post.
That post originally came from someone named Brandon Weber. According to LinkedIn, Weber is a writer based in Michigan who also specializes in social media marketing. Until very recently, he also worked for Upworthy, a media and marketing site built on generating, identifying and profiting from content designed to go viral. That site has received criticism for a leftward political slant, though considering both co-founders formerly worked for MoveOn.org and the site’s current editorial director previously worked at The New York Times, the direction of this bias should not be terribly surprising.
Upworthy’s approach seems to have carried over onto Weber’s own Twitter account and his professional Facebook page. Both seem to be focused on sharing content, much of it political, designed to get many views and clicks.
Weber himself does not claim authorship of the particular image in question. My colleague Amy Laburda tracked him down through Facebook, and he told her that in this case he does not know who created the Trump graphic, and that he would have credited the source if he did. Search engines show that the Trump image my wife shared had been posted by many individuals on a variety of platforms. They included San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who shared the image on Instagram with the caption “Food for thought!”
So my wife, my cousin and Kaepernick, among many others, are sharing a message crafted by parties unknown for reasons undisclosed. Okay by me, but I am not one of those who have a problem with anonymous political speech. Bring it on. But it would be nice if you would bring it on honestly.
As far as my wife knew, she was sharing a post by Weber, whose Facebook page simply shows a smiling, professorial-looking middle-aged man. She would have had to do a lot more digging than the average Facebook user to ascertain and understand his Upworthy connection (according to LinkedIn, he was still working there when he posted the graphic in early December), though Weber makes no secret of his progressive and pro-labor affiliations on any of his social media accounts.
While the Trump image remains unattributed, the quotation it uses is easier to track down. Moe did, in fact, say the words attributed to him - in addition to acknowledging that he was paraphrasing Niemoller - while speaking at an event last November. That event was organized by Trump’s rival for the Republican nomination, Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Not only that, but Kasich’s campaign made available a video of Moe’s comments, disseminating it through YouTube and Facebook. Unlike the Facebook image I saw on my news feed, the original video made its affiliation clear with a logo in the corner and an end card that read “Kasich For Us.”
Even if no one is taking credit for the graphic my wife shared, such a slickly produced still image that glamorizes one candidate or demonizes another did not happen by accident. One of the most popular posts sharing it carried Brandon Weber’s name, though not the name of the unknown creator. The image was bought and paid for, regardless of whether it carries a “sponsored” label when one of your friends retweets it or posts it to your news feed.
As of this writing, Weber’s post had been liked 24,083 times and shared 101,406 times. You cannot get that kind of distribution these days from Facebook, particularly from a page rather than a personal profile, without paying for it one way or another. This graphic was marketed; we just don’t know by whom.
If it is, in fact, the Kasich organization behind the visual version of this message, rather than the progressive-leaning organizations and individuals who are spreading it, it would be interesting on several fronts. It would mean Kasich is seeking to disqualify his own party’s front-runner in the eyes of potential voters, and potentially in ways spread both with and without his name attached. Second, many of the people disseminating Moe’s quote via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter would never vote for Kasich in a general election anyway. It would be a case of politics making, if not strange bedfellows, then at least a casual hookup of mutual convenience.
Regardless of who paid for the image of Trump with Moe’s words, however, it was bought in the hope that the individual scrolling through Facebook will both absorb the message and pass it on to become part of the media campaign. No need to think your own thoughts or craft your own words; someone has thoughtfully done that for you. You just won’t always know who, or why.
Go ahead and become part of the political propaganda campaigns if you want. Just don’t get offended if someone observes that you are an unwitting cog in a viral media machine.