Read: The real power of Bloomberg’s money
People who care about meme culture tend to think of making and sharing memes as amoral but somehow pure: A meme can be a package for vulgar or stupid ideas, but it almost always moves through a network because of some desire on the part of the people who make up the network. Introducing money into this process can make it feel fake. In response to a Bloomberg ad on @grapejuiceboys (2.7 million followers), one of the top comments uses the word “shill.” On a @fuckjerry (15.1 million followers) post: “I hope he paid you good[,] because you’re about to lose a lot of followers including myself.” Each Bloomberg-sponsored post has thousands of comments, not all negative, but these are the sorts of sentiments that hover near the top, getting hundreds of likes.
There is, undeniably, something uncomfortable about watching an extraordinarily wealthy person try to purchase organic expression. There’s also a jarring discordance to the collaboration between WorldStar Hip Hop—once a flashpoint in the Bush-era conservative panic over rap culture—and a presidential candidate who has been extensively criticized for his defense of racially discriminatory police tactics during the same years. Bloomberg has been endorsed by dozens of politicians, most recently the mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as a handful of celebrities; he’s proven his sincerity in ways that make sense to certain types of influencers. But in the meme world, the backlash to the Bloomberg posts “definitely has to do with the fact that people have this ideology of authenticity, or that meme should be organic,” says Piia Varis, a media and online-discourse researcher at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. “Then there is this billionaire who buys memes, and that’s just something that is not done.”
Varis compares the Bloomberg campaign to “Warren’s Meme Team,” a large-scale digital effort (primarily involving Snapchat and Instagram filters) organized by the MIT engineer Misha Leybovich, who supports Warren but is unaffiliated with her campaign. In an extensive, emoji-covered document published in November, Leybovich showed a passable understanding of what a meme is (calling it “any ‘unit of culture’ that spreads as people replicate it and add their own twist”) and a miserable understanding of who makes them: “Skilled creators who [can] run the full stack process from message to creative to distribution.”
The people who really make memes do not have to execute a five-point strategy for distribution, typically. The plan was widely mocked on Reddit and Twitter, and taken as further proof of a far-right claim popularized on 4chan during the 2016 election: “The Left can’t meme.”
By contrast, take @dasharez0ne, an anonymous artist who has been tweeting for five years in the persona of a socially anxious skeleton who advocates crying at work. That account has only 137,000 followers, but its unsolicited endorsement of Bernie Sanders earlier this month was covered by digital-media outlets and retweeted more than 1,700 times. The top responses to the initial tweet are mostly some variation of “thank you admin” and “the only endorsement that matters.” In an email to me, @dasharez0ne said of Bloomberg’s approach: “CULTURE ISNT A YACHT YOU CANT BUY IT. STAY OUT OF OUR CULTURE AND WE WILL STAY OUT OF YOUR PENT HOUSE.”
Certainly Bloomberg’s Instagram strategy is helping his campaign on some level. Each of the campaign’s posts has hundreds of thousands of likes. The disbelieving comments themselves drive engagement, and bump the post’s position in other users’ feeds. But the ads do not contain any content other than the information that Mike Bloomberg exists and is running for president. “Reach and visibility is not the same as impact,” Varis says. “The message also has to speak to somebody on some level.”