How the Facebook right-wing propaganda machine works

How the Facebook right-wing propaganda machine works

Blog ››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ


Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

On Facebook, right-wing meme pages play a vital role in condensing and recycling far-right talking points and keeping the MAGA base engaged online. These pages regularly post extremist content, arguably violating Facebook’s hate speech content policy, and often exploit tragic events in the news cycle, images of veterans, and violent anti-immigrant rhetoric for likes and shares. Although these pages’ visibility and their content should have been downgraded by Facebook’s algorithm changes targeting media publishers and engagement bait, right-wing meme pages have actually been performing better and gaining more weekly interactions -- as measured by reactions, comments, and shares -- since Facebook implemented these changes.

A recent Media Matters study of 463 prominent Facebook pages that regularly posted political content between January 1, 2018, and July 1, 2018, found that images posted by right-leaning pages were the highest performing content. A follow-up Media Matters study reviewing a sample of 26 right-wing meme pages found that on average, they earned more weekly interactions and saw a net increase in interaction numbers under Facebook’s algorithm changes.

The continued success of these pages goes beyond a shoddy algorithm on Facebook’s part. Some of the most popular right-wing meme pages have set up pathways to make their content viral, engaging in a seemingly coordinated effort to promote memes and posts between networks of pages and Facebook groups.

Media Matters reviewed hundreds of viral memes posted between January 1, 2018, and July 1, 2018, by both our initial sample of 26 right-wing meme pages and other right-wing Facebook pages that regularly post memes. In this new study, we tracked major narratives, found common meme sources for content, and mapped out how meme pages pushed their content through a network of Facebook pages and groups.

What viral right-wing memes look like

Where right-wing memes come from

How right-wing memes go viral on Facebook

What viral right-wing memes look like

The three most popular meme narratives over our six-month review dealt with immigration, guns, and President Donald Trump. Other less prevalent but still notable narratives we tracked over the six-month period included race-baiting, voter-suppression, veteran, and nonpartisan content.

Anti-immigrant memes went viral during virtually every week of our six-month study. These memes didn’t usually coincide directly with immigration-related events in the news cycle, but instead, they recycled common talking points about undocumented immigrants using government resources. Vague and sometimes false allegations against undocumented immigrants pushed the idea that, because of either limited government funding or actions by Democrats in Congress, resources provided for undocumented immigrants meant less were being provided for veterans and citizens.

Anti-immigrant memes on Facebook spiked as the Trump administration's zero tolerance immigration policy dominated the news cycle. Some meme pages falsely claimed that the family separation policy originated with former President Bill Clinton and was enforced by former President Barack Obama’s administration. Others attacked asylum-seeking parents for attempting to enter the U.S. and smeared immigrant children as criminals.

Some of the most disturbing anti-immigrant memes posted by these pages encouraged violence against undocumented immigrants. As of this writing, these six posts explicitly or implicitly calling for violence against undocumented immigrants had earned a total of over 446,000 interactions.

Some of the top comments on these posts -- which attain top comment status as a result of earning the most views, reactions, or replies -- justified violence against immigrants, making arguments about immigrants using government resources and referring to immigration as a cultural invasion, echoing right-wing meme pages.

Pro-gun memes did not regularly go viral over the course of our six-month study, but their popularity spiked in reaction to the news cycle. Pro-gun memes were some of the most popular memes on right-wing pages following shootings and gun violence prevention actions (such as the National Rifle Association boycott and March for Our Lives). The week of and the two weeks following the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, memes supporting the NRA and attacking gun violence prevention went viral on a daily basis. These memes argued against gun violence prevention, often by claiming that generational differences have led to an increase in shootings, and asserting that the left was politicizing shootings. A series of engagement-bait memes rallying support for the NRA and its partners in light of the online pressure campaign from gun violence prevention activists also went viral. Following the March for Our Lives, a slew of memes criticizing student activism and belittling protesters for their age went viral. And as has been previously documented, right-wing pages also used memes to attack and smear survivors of the Parkland shooting and their activism against the NRA.

Pro-Trump posts were a staple of weekly meme narratives. Pro-Trump memes and engagement bait tactics were used to rally support for Trump and his family. These tactics -- which ask users to like, reply, or share -- are the type of content that Facebook claimed it was downgrading in its algorithm changes.

Pro-Trump memes often included attacks against people who disagree with or oppose Trump, with an emphasis on the idea that he is unfairly criticized for cleaning up government corruption. These types of pro-Trump memes often defended or divert attention from Trump’s own scandals.

Race-baiting memes covered in terms of their focus, a wide range of topics including attempts to dispute white privilege and deflect blame for slavery. Race-baiting and racist memes often suggested that racism doesn’t exist and claimed there is a double standard against white people. Race-baiting memes attacking people for wearing sagging pants reappeared throughout our six-month review. In one instance, a viral meme called for the support of racist laws banning sagging pants. Some race-baiting memes overlapped with other narratives, including pro-gun and anti-immigrant memes.

The biggest call for policy change in meme narratives over the six-month period rallied support for voter suppression measures, like voter ID laws. False and baseless allegations of voter fraud often accompanied calls for voter suppression laws. Voter suppression measures disproportionately affect minorities, and pages pushing memes supporting these types of policies also posted content about voter fraud conspiracies, which specifically used anti-immigrant rhetoric.. Most viral memes called for or raised the possibility of creating new voter ID laws; others mentioned intimidation tactics, such as posting ICE agents at polling stations.

Right-wing meme pages frequently exploited images of veterans for engagement-bait posts. Some of the most common and successful engagement-bait content posted by right-wing meme pages were recycled images of veterans with requests for likes and shares as a show of support. Some pages posted memes of the same veteran multiple times over months. Right-wing meme pages essentially used recycled images of veterans to earn interactions and increase page visibility under the veil of calls for shows of respect and appreciation for veterans. Memes aiming to exploit outrage by making false and unproven allegations about acts of disrespect toward veterans and military service members were also recycled as engagement bait.

Although hyper-partisan content overwhelmingly dominated right-wing meme narratives, nonpartisan memes courting anti-establishment views periodically went viral. One of the most popular category of arguments in nonpartisan memes was support for pay cuts, benefit reductions, and elimination of pensions for members of Congress. They also called on Congress to repay Social Security funds. Another common type of nonpartisan meme touched on “American values” and often referenced a generational divide (along the same line as some aforementioned pro-gun memes). These memes tended to be patriotic, didn’t align with a specific political party or politician, and tended to go viral when gun violence was in the news cycle.

Where right-wing memes come from

Many right-wing memes that are circulated throughout Facebook on a daily basis aren’t original. Often, they’re memes or content originated on other social media accounts recycled through right-wing Facebook pages. Recycled meme content often comes from Facebook pages that produce branded meme content; other social media platforms like Twitter; Fox News and conservative media figures; and sometimes now-removed Russian propaganda accounts. Most popular right-wing meme pages share a combination of original and recycled content. By recycling content, right-wing meme pages are able to maintain consistent talking points between pages and reinforce uniform conservative messaging across media platforms.

There’s a subset of right-wing meme pages which are either mostly or wholly dedicated to producing memes branded with their logos. Source meme pages disseminate a large portion of memes that spread on Facebook and are recycled on a weekly basis. While these pages are generally smaller and share less viral content than most other right-wing meme pages, their content is frequently taken by larger meme pages and right-wing personalities and circulated throughout Facebook. Images from source meme pages usually contain a logo with the page’s name or Facebook URL, giving credit to the original page. In general, content circulated from source meme pages does not directly react to the news cycle, making it possible for right-wing meme pages to recycle their content for months or even years.

Some source meme pages are:

The Patriot Federation

PolitiPost

The Sage Page

Redneck Nation Clothing

Prepare to Take Back America

America First

Conservative Humor Gone Awry

Flyover Culture

Conservative Post

The Liberty Eagle

The Common Sense Conservative

Stop Hillary in 2016

National Liberty Federation

Content from other social media platforms, especially Twitter, often turns into memes on Facebook. Screenshots of tweets expressing conservative viewpoints go viral on a daily basis. Tweets come from far-right media personalities as well as unverified conservative accounts. Some popular social media accounts like Educating Liberals and conservative commentators like Mark Lutchman post screenshots of their own tweets, which sometimes get picked up and amplified by bigger right-wing meme pages. Some pages even copied text from tweets and converted them into memes.

Right-wing meme pages regularly feature Fox News and other conservative media figures. Fox News’ official social media accounts frequently post images of political and media figures with quotes attached. Such images make it onto right-wing meme pages, usually in show of support for conservative politicians or commentators. Memes quoting conservative media figures like Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Rush Limbaugh also occasionally go viral on Facebook.

Right-wing Russian propaganda from banned social media accounts is still circulating throughout Facebook. As previously covered by Media Matters, right-wing meme pages are still pushing Russian propaganda. Russian propaganda memes play into popular meme narratives, including anti-immigrant narratives related to government resources and voting rights, pro-gun content, and veteran engagement bait.

How right-wing memes go viral on Facebook

Some of the most successful right-wing Facebook pages have established networks with both other pages and Facebook groups (which are distinct from pages). They use those networks to create a pathway for content to circulate through conservative circles on the social media site. Facebook pages coordinate the spread of their content through these networks, which also help them garner more interactions than they would organically from just individual posts. In a case study of the spread of right-wing memes on Facebook, Media Matters tracked memes from May 29 to 31 related to the cancellation of Roseanne Barr’s show after she tweeted a racist attack against Valerie Jarrett, a former senior adviser to President Obama. We were able to trace content as it originated on Facebook, made its way through right-wing pages and groups, and even spread beyond conservative circles on Facebook.

We chose this instance to track for two reasons. First, most content related to Barr was specifically made in reaction to ABC’s cancellation of her show, Roseanne. The timing of this corresponding news cycle event made memes related to Roseanne’s cancellation easier to track, because we were able to pinpoint their origin on Facebook. The second reason we tackled Roseanne cancellation memes is because they performed exceptionally well. These memes not only earned more interactions than memes from broader narratives, but they also went viral at a higher volume, making them a clear success for conservative meme pages.

One way in which Facebook meme networks spread content is by posting a meme on their highest performing page and sharing that post throughout the network. Less than an hour after news broke that ABC had cancelled Roseanne, two major networks of right-wing meme pages began pushing posts defending Barr. The blue badge-verified Facebook page affiliated with far-right clickbait website The Political Insider was the first to post a meme attacking Jarrett and proclaiming “I stand with Roseanne!” The meme included a watermark of The Political Insider’s website on the bottom corner. Within five minutes, the post, which linked to an article from The Political Insider, was shared by four other Facebook pages, one of which appears to be run by The Political Insider, and three that are run by the conservative clickbait sites Headline Politics and Tell Me Now. The Political Insider, Headline Politics, and Tell Me Now’s pages are all part of the same Facebook network: they all seem to exclusively post links to thepoliticalinsider.com and tmn.today; they share memes and videos originally posted by The Political Insider’s official Facebook page; and all three sites use the same Google Analytics ID, which suggests they’re all likely managed by the same person or organization. Between these five coordinated pages, this meme earned over 154,000 interactions, of which 120,700 came from the original post. From there, the meme spread to other conservative circles. The Political Insider post was shared by at least one more major pro-Trump page, and it was also shared to the pro-Trump Facebook group The Deplorables. Two other popular posts in pro-Trump Facebook groups featured the meme. And CNN right-wing commentator Ben Ferguson’s official Facebook page, which frequently posts right-wing memes, posted a version of the meme which cropped out the bottom portion where The Political Insider’s watermark would have been located.

Another network affiliated with the fake news site America’s Freedom Fighters spread its engagement-bait meme showing support for Roseanne and her show in a similar manner as The Political Insider did. The network’s most popular Facebook page, Nation In Distress, posted the meme first, with the watermark “Nation In Distress.” In the following 10 minutes, eight other pages run by America’s Freedom Fighters shared the post. The original Nation In Distress post earned 208,000d interactions, and the meme earned an additional 14,800 interactions from the eight network shares. The post was also shared by another page tied to another Facebook network, where it earned over 12,000 interactions, and was posted to a popular pro-Trump Facebook group. Two pages belonging to a Facebook network run by the fake news site Mad World News also posted the meme with Nation In Distress’ logo ; those posts earned about 20,000 interactions.

One Facebook network used pro-Trump groups run by fake news sites to push its content through right-wing circles. Five pages tied to the far-right website Right Wing News (rwnofficial.com) each posted the exact same engagement-bait meme, calling for the cancellation of the TV show The View in light of Roseanne’s cancellation, within about an hour of each other. The most popular post in this batch had over 700,000 interactions. Between the five page posts, the meme earned almost 1.3 million interactions. Three pages in the same network shared the most popular post from Trump Republic later that night and earned an additional 41,700 interactions.

Right Wing News also pushed this meme through its Facebook group. In a now-deleted post, the personal account of Amanda Shea, who runs two of Right Wing News’ pages, shared the most popular post from the Right Wing News’ batch of memes into the group “President Donald Trump OFFICIAL LLC” with the status text calling for a boycott of ABC. The post got over 8,400 interactions before it was deleted.

The group “President Donald Trump OFFICIAL LLC” was originally started by Right Wing News’ official Facebook page; six of the group’s 12 administrators are pages that are part of Right Wing News’ networks. Amanda Shea’s personal account, along with the personal accounts of administrators and moderators of the group, regularly pushes posts from Right Wing News’ network of pages to the President Donald Trump OFFICIAL LLC group’s 183,000-plus members. Right-wing meme pages and fake news sites are often behind some of these big pro-Trump Facebook groups: The 94,000-member group Tea Party has administrators and moderators tied to Big League Politics, Jews News, and Conservative Firing Line; the page Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children runs its own 100,000-plus member group; and the personal account of the meme source page The Sage Page is an admin for the groups Tea Party and President Donald Trump OFFICIAL LLC.

Among the memes related to Roseanne, the one that originated with Right Wing News’ network was by far the most popular. After the network initially posted it, the meme made rounds on other networks. Pages from America’s Freedom Fighters’ network helped spread it, beginning with Nation in Distress sharing Trump Republic’s meme. About 10 minutes later, four other pages in the network individually posted the meme, and two days later, Nation in Distress shared one of those posts. The America’s Freedom Fighter’s network earned nearly 170,000 interactions from this meme. A page tied to the fake news site TruthFeed posted the meme, and TruthFeed’s official page shared it; the two posts combined earned over 38,000 interactions. A few other individual conservative pages also picked up the meme. And Right Wing News’ meme also made it beyond conservative circles: A Facebook page connected to a Richmond journalist posted it as well.

In total, this one Roseanne-related meme earned nearly 1.6 million interactions solely from its circulation through coordinated right-wing networks and conservative circles on Facebook.

Media Matters tracked over 40 other memes posted in reaction to Roseanne’s cancellation. The most popular and successful content was pushed by various networks. The aforementioned Facebook networks we tracked produced a few other viral memes in the days following Roseanne’s cancellation. One meme from America’s Freedom Fighters earned about 95,000 interactions within the network and an additional 44,800 interactions from other pages. A meme posted by The Political Insider and pushed through its network earned almost 53,000 interactions. And another engagement-bait post from the Right Wing News network earned more than 96,000 interactions between two of its pages, and nearly 60,000 interactions from three other conservative pages.

Meme source pages also demonstrated an array of tactics to push their content through conservative pages. Some pages, like Conservative Comedy Today, individually posted their content and it was then picked up by individual conservative pages. The meme source page The Sage Page coordinated the spread of its content by having a user account tied to the page share a meme to three pro-Trump groups. But the most aggressive tactic came from the popular meme source Facebook page The Newly Press (whose page was recently taken down), which posted 14 different -- but all seemingly related -- memes the day Barr’s show was canceled. Some of these memes were similar to each other, with slight tweaks in language but making the same claim. And all of them consistent messaging, arguing either that there is a double standard for holding conservative and liberal celebrities accountable for their comments, or that there’s a double standard for what comments white and Black comedians can make about race.

The virality of right-wing memes in this instance was logistically possible because of coordinated page and group networks; it was successful because of consistent messaging across Facebook’s landscape. All the memes we reviewed related to Roseanne’s cancellation rallied support for Barr and smeared her critics by making the argument that Barr was for being a white conservative. As the weekly meme narratives demonstrate, there is clear and consistent messaging shared across right-wing Facebook pages. They focus in the same topics, push the same memes, and recycle and amplify each others’ content, as well as content from other conservative media and social media. And as a result of this coordination in content and messaging, a direct impact on followers is evident, as they are also recycling the same messaging and feeding it back to meme pages through comments, shares, and other interactions.

Graphics by Melissa Joskow and Sarah Wasko. This post has been updated for clarity.

Posted In
Diversity & Discrimination
Network/Outlet
Facebook
Stories/Interests
Facebook, Fake News
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