In the fever swamps of Instagram, a network of right-wing meme accounts run by teenage boys and young men has erupted into an advertising powerhouse reaching millions. These memers — who regularly post far-right conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine propaganda and other incendiary clickbait — first caught the attention of obscure brands selling cheap MAGA merch, who started paying them to display ads to their rapidly growing conservative audiences. The money wasn’t great, as a few memers told HuffPost last summer, but it still felt like a big deal to watch their Instagram pages blossom into mini businesses.
Little did they know, members of Donald Trump’s inner circle would soon come knocking.
Since the 2020 election, these meme moguls have quietly collected payments to run ads for the Trump campaign’s “Election Defense Fund”; former senior Trump aide Jason Miller’s new social media network, GETTR; Trump confidant Mike Lindell’s bedding company, MyPillow; and, as recently as a few weeks ago, the National Republican Senatorial Committee. In a few cases, the memers have included high-schoolers as young as 14. Some of these discreet ad deals were brokered directly between teens and former members of the Trump White House, communications obtained by HuffPost reveal.
Most of the ads come in the form of memes with captions urging people to click customized links inserted into the memers’ Instagram bios, which lead to the promoted parties’ websites. The memers typically earn a small “conversion” fee for each person who uses their link, doled out by third-party marketing agencies working with big-name clients. Given the massive reach of several of these pages, often boosted by Instagram’s powerful recommendation algorithms, this can quickly add up. For the recent GETTR ad campaign, memers earned $0.85 per conversion with a cap of 25,000 conversions — or $21,250.
Not many kids can name-drop major political figures (or a world-infamous pillow tycoon) on their résumés before they’re old enough to vote. For some, their Instagram shitpost accounts — once casual side hustles they would use to shill crummy MAGA socks and the like for a few bucks here and there — are now serious income streams. At least one teen is planning a tropical vacation with his earnings, while other young memers are saving or investing theirs.
The services they provide are highly valuable: They’ve fostered relationships with huge niche communities and can launch hushed influence campaigns that are free from the kind of oversight and transparency mandates enforced through regulated advertising channels. This could open the door to dark-money campaigns and targeted, opaque disinformation operations reminiscent of when the Internet Research Agency, Russia’s Kremlin-linked troll farm, attempted to influence U.S. voters from the shadows via meme warfare in 2016.
Almost none of the dozens of meme ads that HuffPost has observed have been labeled as paid endorsements — a form of deceptive advertising known as “stealth shilling.” In certain cases, memers’ failure to disclose their compensation likely constitutes a violation of federal law for which they, the promoted parties and any intermediaries could be held liable.
But the evidence doesn’t exist for long: Unlike an official ad placed through Instagram’s business platform, which would be stored in an online database and subject to public scrutiny, the memers tend to delete sponsored posts from their pages after just 24 to 72 hours. This is especially problematic when it comes to ads of a political nature, as it allows advertisers to target voters with virtually untraceable messaging.
“A lot of this stuff is very down-low,” said a memer with hundreds of thousands of followers. Like others who spoke to HuffPost, he is a minor and requested anonymity. Some declined to speak on the record for fear of endangering their business relationships.
He and other memers who’ve been paid to run ads promoting one or several Trump-affiliated entities have also posted content spreading false information about the COVID-19 vaccines, urging their followers to defy mask mandates, calling for the deportation of female politicians of color and alleging that President Joe Biden is a pedophile. Some have additionally run ads for separate clients selling fake vaccine cards, QAnon apparel and toilet seat projector lights that shine open-mouthed photos of Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton into one’s toilet bowl.
“There’s a lot of money to be made,” the memer said. “You just gotta know the right people.”
Behind the scenes, young memers have done business directly with the former chief digital officer of Trump’s White House, Ory Rinat, according to emails and Instagram messages reviewed by HuffPost. Rinat left politics in June 2020 to launch Urban Legend, an influencer marketing platform, with the former marketing director of Trump’s executive office, Sondra Clark. Federal Election Commission filings show that over the next six months, Urban Legend’s partner firm, Legendary Campaigns, raked in close to $1.8 million from Trump’s reelection campaign for “online advertising,” as Axios first reported.
During this time, memers simultaneously unleashed a torrent of pre-election memes instructing their followers to visit the Trump campaign’s website and complete their voter registration — with at least one suggesting they do so to “make sure Democrats didn’t mess with it” — followed by dozens of post-election memes directing people to a campaign donation portal in support of Trump’s legal battle to overturn his loss. Urban Legend declined to comment on specific ad campaigns; it also declined to confirm that it had worked with the Trump campaign and other entities HuffPost inquired about.
“We can’t allow the Left-wing MOB to steal the Presidency,” one memer wrote in an ad promoting Trump’s “Election Defense Fund.” “Hit the LINK IN MY BIO and let’s fight these Commies in the Supreme Court.” (Those who donated may be surprised to learn that most of their money actually went into Trump’s “Save America” PAC, a slush fund he could dip into as he pleases for personal expenses, like golfing.)
Donald Trump Jr., who follows several of the memers on Instagram (where he has dubbed himself “General in the Meme Wars”), shared some of these posts to his own Instagram Story, dramatically increasing their reach.
It’s becoming increasingly common for political candidates to partner with influencers to run ads on Instagram and other platforms. Influencer marketing is a highly effective way to connect with voters on a more personal level, like former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg did as a Democratic presidential candidate in 2020. People tend to trust the influencers they follow and may be more likely to get out and vote, for example, if an influencer tells them to.
But influencers’ failure to disclose when they’ve been paid to act as digital door knockers — and marketing firms’ failure to ensure they do so — is highly unethical and raises serious transparency concerns. It’s also a violation of Instagram’s policies, which require users to disclose when there’s “an exchange of value” between a creator and a business partner.
If your favorite memer had encouraged you to donate to Trump’s campaign but didn’t make it clear that they were being compensated to do so, you might have made a donation under the false impression that someone you trust was giving an independent endorsement rather than serving as a paid campaign mouthpiece.
“The electorate has the right to be fully informed, and part of that is knowing what the motive, bias and interest of the publisher of the content that they’re looking at has,” said Bonnie Patten, the executive director of the nonprofit watchdog Truth in Advertising. “If we think [someone is sharing their] organic opinion, we won’t analyze it in the same way or have the same level of skepticism we would if we know we’re being marketed to.”
Targeting voters under the radar also allows partisan operatives to get away with things that might not be tolerated in regulated ad channels, like spreading false information (or calling Democrats “Commies”). Urban Legend told HuffPost that the influencers it works with are required to comply with “applicable disclosure rules” but did not answer questions about how it enforces this mandate.
Stealth shilling is a violation of the Federal Trade Commission’s poorly enforced ad transparency laws, which apply to the sale of goods and services. But the legal requirements for online political ads, which fall under the Federal Election Commission’s domain, are narrow and outdated.
Unlike FTC regulations, which address influencer marketing in detail, the FEC rules in this realm haven’t been updated since 2006 — years before Instagram and many other influencer-populated platforms even existed. The FEC stipulates that “public communication made by a political committee … must display a disclaimer” and that “disclaimers must also appear on political committees’ internet websites that are available to the general public.”
The GETTR ads were among those coordinated by Urban Legend, internal documentation provided to HuffPost shows. Like the others, most GETTR memes were not disclosed as sponsored content — despite Clark touting on LinkedIn that Urban Legend is “Making Influencer Marketing Radically Transparent” and Rinat similarly declaring on Instagram that he’s “on a mission to make marketing more accountable and transparent.”
GETTR initially suggested that it would provide a comment for this article but then declined to do so and stopped responding to emails.
Clark has also claimed that influencers working with Urban Legend have “mobilized their audiences” to “tell Congress to make technology more inclusive.” In July, a handful of memers implored their followers to click links in their bios leading to phone- and email-harvesting “petitions” from the NRSC. One demanded “a full investigation into Biden-tech collusion”; another railed against mask mandates and COVID-19 shutdowns but lacked any clear objective. Both prompted signatories to “protect Trump’s legacy” by giving money to the NRSC. Weeks earlier, FEC filings show, the NRSC paid Legendary Campaigns nearly $12,500 for “digital consulting” services.
Neither the Trump campaign nor the NRSC responded to repeated requests for comment. Urban Legend said its campaigns are “built on accountable measurement.”
“Advertisers set up campaigns where they pay for ― and creators are paid for ― driving specific results like newsletter sign-ups, event registrations, or visits to a landing page,” a spokesperson said. “In the past year, brands have launched 175 campaigns through the [Urban Legend] platform, mobilizing creators across the ideological spectrum and beyond politics, in verticals like healthcare, parenting, and sports.”
Working with Urban Legend is a lucrative and highly sought-after opportunity within the MAGA memer cottage industry, sources said, noting that even perennial Republican congressional candidate and convicted stalker Omar Navarro has gotten in on the action. He has shared GETTR ads along with posts pushing far-right conspiracy theories, such as claims that Biden has a “body double” and that the vaccine is a “money making scam operation.”
The 32-year-old is well-connected with several young memers and can sometimes be seen co-hosting Instagram Live sessions with a 16-year-old late into the night, discussing things like whether former first lady Michelle Obama secretly has a penis. Navarro initially agreed to an interview but hung up twice when called on his cellphone. He blocked this reporter on Instagram and did not respond to subsequent text messages.
The influencers Urban Legend works with are “vetted before being allowed to join the platform” because “brand safety is at the core of the process,” the spokesperson said. This includes more than 500 influencers, he added, noting that the top verticals are health care, progressive causes, parenting and technology.
HuffPost obtained emails between a high-school-aged memer and Rinat in which the teen accused Urban Legend of unfairly withholding his payment. Urban Legend declined to comment directly on the matter, stating only that influencers “agree to the terms and conditions for each campaign” and that if an influencer “attempts to manipulate the platform or their results in violation of the agreed-to terms, we deactivate their account.” In the emails, the memer explicitly denied that he had violated any terms; he didn’t agree to an interview.
Memers who have run ads promoting MyPillow told HuffPost they earn around $400 per post and that the ads are coordinated by Derek Utley, co-founder of the political consulting and social media marketing firm X Strategies LLC. Utley and X Strategies — which has also attracted clients including then-congressional Republican candidates Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, as well as a couple of pro-Trump super PACs — did not respond to requests for comment, nor did MyPillow.
In the days after HuffPost reached out to X Strategies and MyPillow to inquire about their compliance with FTC ad transparency laws, at least 10 new MyPillow ads popped up. Each included the text “Sponsored post,” “Sponsored Content” or “#sponsored” in the captions. The memers who shared these ads had previously neglected to include such disclaimers in their MyPillow ads.
Lindell, who has bankrolled an extraordinary disinformation campaign pushing the false claim that Trump won the election, has reportedly lost tens of millions of dollars due to mass boycotts of MyPillow. Major retailers across the country, including Costco, Bed Bath & Beyond and Kohl’s, have dropped his products, leaving him to rely on direct sales through his company website. That’s where the memers come in.
“GOD BLESS MIKE LINDELL!” reads an ad on one memer’s page. It features an image of a beaming Lindell clutching a cross pendant in the clouds and directs people to a MyPillow sale link. Immediately beneath that post on the memer’s profile sits another ad. It leads to a website hawking $30 fake vaccine cards as “the solution to the governments oppression.”
Calling all HuffPost superfans!
Sign up for membership to become a founding member and help shape HuffPost’s next chapter