Left-Wing Activists Are Bringing Back MAGA Twitter

An anonymous social-media account claims to “combat right-wing threats” to democracy, and recently started fundraising through a PAC.

A pixelated arm holding up a mirror with Donald Trump's mouth reflected in it
Getty; The Atlantic

Over the past year, a noticeable portion of MAGA world has been removed from mainstream social-media platforms or inspired to decamp to newer, more permissive sites such as Parler, Gab, MeWe, and Rumble. These alternative platforms are not known for their tough content moderation or for providing a great user experience; however, they are not exactly the dark web, either. You or I can easily look at them anytime we like.

But what if we don’t like? What if we don’t have the time or motivation to scroll through spam links and bad memes and the confusing shorthand of the more extreme factions of the Trumpist right? In theory, this is where PatriotTakes, an anonymously run Twitter account with more than 400,000 followers, comes in. The account’s stated mission is to “research, monitor, and expose the extremism and radicalization of the far right across the darkest parts of the internet.” In practice the account shares screenshots with snarky captions, all day and every day, of conversations from social-media sites that an ostensibly mainstream liberal audience might never see. Sometimes they’re of conversations that no one really needs to see: “I’m going to pass,” read one recent post, above a photo of a man whose T-shirt advertised his unvaccinated sperm. “Major cringe,” said another, referring to an image of a child’s MAGA-themed birthday party.

PatriotTakes posts other sorts of content, too: short video clips of wild comments from various Trump-camp celebrities; snippets of random Parler- or Gab-user tantrums about election fraud or America’s fall to communism; and small but newsy finds, including on-the-ground reports from half-baked protests and other strange events. But scrolling through the timeline, which has been extremely active since the lead-up to the 2020 election, it’s often hard to say exactly what you’re looking at. (Does a screenshot of an illustration of a Bible in the shape of a gun really tell a person anything?) Becca Lewis, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University who studies online political subcultures, has seen many accounts of this genre, which frame the task of locating and sharing (and mocking) political conversations they find repugnant as something dangerous and self-evidently important. “It’s really easy for the lines to get blurred,” she told me, “between what is dunking on right-wing content versus genuine political activism versus journalism.”

PatriotTakes has shown interest in all three. The account has a loving fan base that retweets its jokes and thanks it for all the hard work; since April it has been soliciting donations via the ActBlue platform to support its efforts to “expose right-wing extremism”; and its tweets have become so well known that they are sometimes cited by mainstream media outlets. But does the country really need PatriotTakes the way PatriotTakes says it does? From one point of view, the account and others like it represent a necessary and productive category addition to the post-Trump internet. From another, they’re the latest iterations of #Resistance Twitter—even more opportunistic and misguided than what came before.

“There is an entire economy of organizations and groups that are capitalizing on anti-Trump, anti-MAGA content for any number of reasons,” Lewis said. “It’s an attention economy in the anti-Trump world as much as it is in the Trump world, and everyone is trying to navigate that.”

When I first got in touch with PatriotTakes via email in June, the person who says (or people who say) they run the account insisted on anonymity—out of concern about potential violence and harassment—and then answered a small number of questions before cutting off contact.

The author of the emails described themselves as a “concerned citizen” who had started monitoring right-wing rhetoric on Parler last year and documenting it on a Twitter account called ParlerTakes. “After Parler was banned from the App Store [in January], the right wing social media system became more fragmented,” they wrote. “The natural evolution was to make sure I was monitoring what I felt to be the big outlets of the far right.” They hadn’t originally intended to accept any money for this effort—in December 2020 and January 2021, fans started asking if they could give money and PatriotTakes turned them down—but “after the account’s rapid growth, the natural progression was to professionalize my work.” They said they were working on turning PatriotTakes into a large-scale opposition-research political-action committee, with funds primarily going to cover the cost of buying computers and software and hiring staff. (According to the committee’s first FEC filing, which was posted Monday morning, PatriotTakes has raised just under $52,000 so far. Of that, about half has been paid out for services like compliance consulting, marketing, and payment processing.)

I asked about the possibility—floated by many critics of the account—that by sharing extremist rhetoric to a broad audience with little other information, PatriotTakes is effectively re-platforming people who have been removed from the public square for a reason. The account’s owner was uninterested in discussing it. “If you are referring to Twitter criticism from trolls, I’m not concerned,” they wrote. “I am thrilled that I have built a massive platform with hundreds of thousands of followers in a short period of time with pretty much no budget to start. I can slow and fade away, or I can grow and try to expand the work I do.” They stopped responding to questions after a subsequent email in which I asked for comment on a set of tweets from May, in which PatriotTakes reposted a disgusting and extremely racist meme under the comment “This is disgusting and extremely racist” and then followed up with a call for donations.

Adele Stan, editor of the website Right Wing Watch, calls PatriotTakes a “terrific account,” and says it is doing important work. In the social-media age, there are new rules about what counts as journalism, she told me. “I think we need a lot of this. People either want to mock the right or understand it, and often it’s a combination of both.” She added, “We got a great boost to our own Twitter account when my colleague started embracing a strategy that was really similar, uploading the crazy stuff that we see, clipping it to a digestible length, and directly putting it into a tweet.” (Right Wing Watch currently has 300,000 followers on Twitter.)

But this strategy carries the risk of promoting extremist narratives and pushing hateful ideas out to a broader audience. Where PatriotTakes is, in fact, documenting American extremism (instead of just ridiculing easy targets), it does so with a lack of context that undermines the account’s stated mission. There’s little that other researchers or journalists can do with content that’s been presented without metadata, links, or thorough attribution. And while most viewers won’t need much help to understand what’s wrong with the ideas being expressed in those posts, a fraction of them could be confused and internalize exactly what PatriotTakes purports to be fighting. “The far right has become quite adept at taking advantage of that,” Lewis noted.

One also wonders how the different sorts of posts on PatriotTakes are meant to fit together. On a recent Saturday afternoon, for example, an original video of the white nationalist Nic Fuentes screaming outside at CPAC about “white-boy summer,” and vowing to give “the most racist, the most sexist, the most anti-Semitic speech,” was shared just a few hours after an embarrassing, but not-quite-political clip ripped from Donald Trump Jr.’s Instagram. Do both of these things count as the sort of “right-wing extremism” that must be rooted out and exposed and fried in the  disinfectant of sunlight? (Donald Trump Jr. has 4.6 million followers on Instagram.)

The account’s fundraising, brought in through its own PAC, has also raised eyebrows. In the spring, PatriotTakes formed a partnership with MeidasTouch, a social-media giant and anti-Trump PAC founded in early 2020 that is best known for its anti-MAGA viral videos, skill at driving Twitter trends, and recent fury over its coverage by Rolling Stone. Ben Meiselas, a co-founder of MeidasTouch, declined to comment on the record about what the partnership entails; however, the two PACs appear to be connected through shared personnel. According to FEC filings for 2020, the MeidasTouch PAC paid $9,167 for compliance consulting and event supplies to a firm associated with a Democratic political consultant in Michigan named Amy Gray. Gray is now registered as the treasurer of the PatriotTakes PAC, and her firm was paid $5,000 for compliance consulting across May and June. (It was she who connected me with the PatriotTakes Twitter account’s putative owner or owners via email.) The approach of both committees appears analogous to the one used last year by the $87 million Lincoln Project: First create content that stirs up liberal outrage and a sense of internet belonging, then use that energy to raise political dollars. (The MeidasTouch PAC also paid more than half a million dollars last year to Prestige Worldwide Inc., a company founded by the Democratic political strategist Adam Parkhomenko “to help progressive candidates and organizations stick it to Trump and his enablers online.”)

When concerns are raised about this model or its output—critics called the Lincoln Project a “giant grift” last year, for example—they’re often batted down by fans. Mike Rothschild, a reporter who recently published a book about QAnon, told me he enjoyed PatriotTakes at first—back when it was called ParlerTakes—but worried about the account’s false claim that QAnon was a “psyop” deliberately crafted by Trump allies to thwart liberal democracy. When he called this error out, he was dogpiled by PatriotTakes followers who said he was “jealous” of the account because of the attention it was getting, and that he was picking a “weird fight” with someone who was doing a lot of good. “There was a general feeling with these people that because [PatriotTakes] called out right-wing garbage, it was above any kind of scrutiny,” he said.

I’ve been tagged as a hater, too. A couple of weeks ago, I reached out to the tech entrepreneur and Twitter personality William LeGate, who was briefly rumored to be behind the PatriotTakes account. LeGate told me he does have a friendly relationship with the account runner but isn’t involved with the project in any official way. Soon after, he tweeted that I was working on a “hit piece” about his friend “because they dared to start a PAC to fund their research,” and that I was motivated by my envy of PatriotTakes’ follower count.

Actually, I’m disturbed, not jealous. PatriotTakes isn’t merely indifferent to the context of the material it captures, or to the risks of reposting that content for a wider audience—it also fails to acknowledge the broader work to which it ostensibly contributes. The account rarely makes mention of any of the hundreds of other researchers and journalists who study extremist communities, and who have had to confront the ethical quandary of amplifying hate and conspiracy theories in order to understand them. Instead, it panders to its fans by posing as a loner hero: “Looks like I’m making a lot of people nervous for all the right reasons,” it tweeted in April, after infuriating the political consultant Roger Stone. “It’s incredibly performative,” says Brandy Zadrozny, a senior reporter at NBC News who covers online platforms and politics. “I’m going into the lion’s den and bringing you the danger of the far right. That’s ridiculous. It doesn’t shine a light on anything. It just takes videos from one place and puts them in another.”

Much of the work PatriotTakes claims to do is already being done: The Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Color of Change regularly put out detailed reports on what the far right is doing online, says Brian Friedberg, a senior researcher at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. He also points to the nonprofit journalist collective Unicorn Riot, which was founded in Minnesota in 2015 to cover events like the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally at great personal risk. Antifascist organizers have been paying attention to far-right spaces on social media and offering “robust analysis” of them for years, he told me. “Receipt collecting was pioneered by all sorts of activists way, way before this point where it’s becoming a market,” he said.

When you read PatriotTakes, you might think it’s totally alone in the world, unaware of any other efforts to study right-wing rhetoric or advance progressive causes. In July, the account shared a screenshot from the new social-media app Gettr—created by the former Trump spokesperson Jason Miller—in which a user asked, “Why doesn’t the left have any rallies or conferences?” PatriotTakes might well have mocked the absurd premise of the question. Instead, it gave a telling answer: “We don’t need them,” PatriotTakes wrote. “Honestly, those rallies and conferences do very little to implement actual tangible change.”