After announcing his candidacy, former NYC mayor Mike Bloomberg quickly shot to double digits in the polls.
This was partly thanks to the ferocity of his marketing campaign, which involved leveraging his billions not only to woo centrist Democrats—but also to recruit some of the most elusive and influential salesmen in the world: meme gurus.
Bloomberg has, thus far, successfully recruited some of the most successful meme accounts on Instagram. One of these accounts is @fuckjerry, who posted a screenshot of a message from Bloomberg on Instagram. "Hello Jerry. My granddaughter showed me this account. Your memes are very humorous. Can you post a meme that lets everyone know I'm the cool candidate?" Bloomberg wrote, offering to Venmo a billion dollars in exchange for a meme post. (It's unclear as to how much the Jerry group was actually paid).
These exchanges might seem lighthearted in nature, but make no mistake: This is marketing, plain and simple. According to many critics, it's also a threat to American democracy.
According to still others, it's proof that American democracy has long been broken, crafted to favor the rich under the guise of freedom for all.
Influencer Loopholes: How Bloomberg (and Brands) Get Away With Murder
Bloomberg's campaign comes nearly a year after Facebook sparked widespread ire when they announced that they would not be banning sponsored political content. According to Facebook's rules, influencers are requested to label their posts as "branded content" when they're paid to promote a candidate—but the Zuckerberg-led corporation has no way to actually make sure this happens.
"We're allowing US-based political candidates to work with creators to run this content, provided the political candidates are authorized and the creators disclose any paid partnerships through our branded content tools," a Facebook spokesperson told several news outlets, seemingly using the same canned response in emails to several websites including The Verge and Daily Mail. "Branded content is different from advertising, but in either case we believe it's important people know when they're seeing paid content on our platforms."
This is a valid method in theory, but it's not failsafe in that it completely relies on influencer transparency—not something that influencers are generally known for. Many Instagram users have gotten around the branded-content transparency initiative by creating private accounts that prevent their posts from being flagged.
Bloomberg has utilized these loopholes with mixed success. He is collaborating with the group Meme 2020, led by the chief executive officer of the aforementioned Jerry Media. In conjunction with Meme 2020, Bloomberg has reached meme pages including @MyTherapistSaid, @KaleSalad, and @WhitePeopleHumor, often sending DMs that seem to be attempting to paint him as a "cool candidate." Bloomberg's Twitter account has also successfully leveraged the Internet's love of surrealism to promote the presidential hopeful, posting surreal and occasionally critical tweets about the candidate. (At least Twitter is doing a bit more than Facebook: Last week, they banned 70 pro-Bloomberg amounts on the basis of "platform manipulation." These accounts, mostly created after Bloomberg announced his candidacy, were initially flagged for posting identical content).
So, before we smile and roll our eyes at the next pro-Bloomberg meme or tweet, we need to remember what these things are insidious and very well-funded marketing strategies.
Bloomberg isn't alone in this, of course. Across the board, brands are taking to TikTok, utilizing cutesy personas, engineering cheeky Twitter presences, and developing advanced and hyper-personalized marketing strategies. These tactics are guaranteed to capture our attention by feeding off our desire for connection, distraction, and the like. With social media, brands are able to infiltrate every aspect of our lives 24/7, disguising themselves as friendly forces despite their completely profit-based intentions.
The point is: We need to be suspicious of anything that is trying to sell us a product, no matter how cute or funny it seems. (Just remember: Capitalism is always, inherently, trying to screw you over).
A Very Online Grassroots Revolution Versus a Billionaire-Funded Ad Campaign
Bloomberg's approach stands in contrast to the organically viral, perpetually online nature of many of Bernie Sanders' supporters, who have steadily been defending their chosen candidate on all media platforms without a single cent of funding. Sanders' people-powered support has seen him skyrocket to the top of the polls, largely thanks to the grassroots passion that his message of populism, equality, and change inspires.
Of course, Sanders' sometimes vitriolic fanbase has been the topic of much contention and critique, and the much-maligned Bernie Bros are not guiltless (although the few loud, cruel ones are outliers).
If it does come down to Sanders versus Bloomberg in the primaries, this will be a battle between hollow, money-backed content and a genuine grassroots movement. It would be easy to say that love and solidarity will win, but in America, money tends to take the cake, so we all need to be vigilant.
Regardless, it's morally reprehensible that Mike Bloomberg is able to literally buy the support of Instagram influencers and the Democratic party. (It's also reprehensible that billionaires exist at all—but that's a topic for another time).
If you're frustrated by Bloomberg and his terrible memes, tired of billionaires buying elections and screwing everyone else over under the pretense of freedom and you live in NYC, you can attend this march on Bloomberg's Upper East Side mansion on Saturday, February 5th.