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MAGA GATEKEEPING 🤬 GRIFTERS

Sixteen-year-old Casey, a high school junior 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 lionize 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, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), 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,” 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 traveling, modeling 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 hyperpartisan 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, demonizing public health officials and railing against face masks. They also pander to their base by demeaning prominent female Democrats — especially those of color — in crude and sexist ways.

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This effort to capitalize 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 fueling political polarization by incentivizing the spread of hyperpartisan 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 Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas). Some are dedicated to trashing Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other top Democrats. 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 realized 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.”

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