And then, of course, there’s the content, that at a few dozen posts a day, Nicoloff is far too busy to produce himself. “I have two people in the Philippines who post for me,” said Nicoloff, “a husband and wife combo”. From 9 a.m. EST until midnight, contractors scour the internet for viral political stories, many of which are explicitly pro-Trump. If something seems to go viral elsewhere, it’s copied to their site and promoted with an urgent headline. (Khan’s story was posted at the end of the shift, around midnight Eastern Time, or just before noon in Manila.) The resulting product is crude and often shocking, even by standards of this campaign. “There is no way I can send my kids to public school to be brainwashed by the LGBT lobby” read a title, linked to an essay from The Blaze by Glenn Beck; “Alert: UN Supports Obama’s Secret Police Takeover; Here’s what we know … ”read another, copied from a site called The Federalist Papers Project. In the end, Nicoloff wins what he jokingly described as a “doctor’s salary” – in a good month, over $ 20,000.
Terry Littlepage, an internet marketer based in Las Cruces, NM, took this model even further. It manages a collection of around 50 politically-themed Facebook pages with names like The American Patriot and My Favorite Gun, which push visitors to half a dozen external websites, filled with content aggregated by a team of freelance writers. He estimates that he spends around a thousand dollars a day to advertise his pages on Facebook; as a result, they have over 10 million followers. In a good month, Littlepage’s properties bring in $ 60,000.
Nicoloff and Littlepage say Trump has been good for business, but each admits some unease. Nicoloff, a conservative, said there were other candidates he preferred in the Republican primaries but had drawn closer to the candidate. Littlepage is also a recent convert. During the primaries, he was a supporter of Cruz, and he even tried to create left-wing pages on Facebook but found that they just didn’t make him that much money.
In their threads of angry and cascading comments, the followers of Make America Great do not express such ambivalence. Almost every page operator I’ve spoken to has been amazed at the tone of their commentators, comparing them to things like torch-wielding crowds and sharks in a binge eating. No doubt because of the name of the page, some Trump supporters even confuse Nicoloff’s page with an official campaign organ. Nicoloff says he receives dozens of messages a day from Trump supporters, expecting or hoping to reach the man himself. Many, he says, are simply asking for money.
Many of these Political news pages will likely see their cachet start to evaporate after November 8. But one company, the Liberty Alliance, may have found a way to create something sustainable and even potentially transformational, almost entirely within the Facebook ecosystem. The Georgia-based company was founded by Brandon Vallorani, formerly of Answers in Genesis, the organization that opened a museum in Kentucky promoting a literal biblical creation story. Today, Liberty Alliance has around 100 sites in its network, and around 150 Facebook pages, according to Onan Coca, the company’s 36-year-old editor. He estimates their cumulative number of subscribers to be at least 50 million. Company partners include former Congressman Allen West, 2008 Elections personality Joe the Plumber, Tory actor Kirk Cameron and former “Saturday Night Live” actress Victoria Jackson. Then there are the countless Liberty news pages, which together have become an almost ubiquitous presence on right-wing political Facebook in recent years. Their names are informative and evocative: Eagle Rising; Fight for Trump; Tribune des Patriotes; Relive America; Herald of the United States; The Last Resistance.
About a dozen sites are published internally, but the publications of the company’s small team of editors are free to be shared across the network. The deal for a potential Liberty Alliance member is this: you bring the name and audience, and the company will build you a pre-made site, provide it with ads, help you populate it with content, and keep some of the income. Coca told me that the company generated $ 12 million in revenue last year. (The company declined to share any documents to further corroborate its claims about subscribers and revenue.)
Because the pages are managed independently, the editorial product is varied. But it’s almost universally suited to the cadences and styles that seem to work best on partisan Facebook. He also closely follows big tales from the conservative media of Facebook, which in turn follow the Trump campaign message: Hillary Clinton is a con artist and possibly mentally incompetent; ISIS is winning; Black Lives Matter is the real racist movement; Only Donald Trump can save us; the system – all of this – is rigged. The success or failure of Liberty Alliance will depend, at least in part, on Facebook’s algorithm. Systemic ecosystem changes happen through algorithmic tweaks, and the company recently adjusted the news feed to “further reduce clickbait headlines.”