When Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign in June 2015, Clayton Keirns, now 29, saw an opportunity. “I was business-minded and kind of conservative, and I was like, wow, this is something I’ve never seen before,” Keirns said in an interview this summer, describing how he started a Facebook page called Donald Trump for President to “see what happens.” He threw a little money at boosting the page through Facebook ads and bought a few thousand likes from an online service. The page took off, he said, hitting 100,000 followers during the peak of the 2016 primaries and 1 million on Inauguration Day 2017. He changed the name to Donald Trump Is My President after Trump won; the page now has 1.8 million followers.
Donald Trump Is My President is now part of a bustling network of eight pro-Trump Facebook pages that together count about 8 million followers—numbers that would make plenty of digital media operations jealous. Those pages, which include Donald Trump Fan Club and I Like Donald Trump, exclusively send links to the same website, Ilovemyfreedom.org. There, Keirns and his business partners run a small blogging operation that filters the news into posts and opinion pieces that tend to be emotionally grabbing, politically sensational, and as flattering to the president as possible. The undertaking is part of a cottage industry of highly engaged Donald Trump fan pages that know how to get more likes, shares, and clicks than many of the traditional news outlets against which they compete for Facebook users’ attention.
These pages are very easy to find. Search “Donald Trump” on Facebook. Scroll past the president’s own page and that of Donald Trump Jr. and you’ll find a deluge of pages with names like Donald Trump for President (4 million), Donald Trump Is Our President (3 million), and USA Patriots for Donald Trump (nearly 2 million followers). They share memes, videos, and articles often written by their creators. One recent popular meme shared by Donald Trump for President contained nothing but large text over a bright colored background that read, “For those who support the migrant invasion heading our way, please post your home address. They’ll need a place to live.” That was shared more than 48,000 times.
These pages—and their liberal counterparts, like Occupy Democrats and Proud Liberal—are often not the work of hobbyists but of entrepreneurs who have turned a talent for political Facebook engagement into businesses they can live on. And business in this frenzied election year appears to be bustling, even as Facebook has tweaked its news-feed algorithm to reduce the spread of divisive partisan content and news more generally, in addition to cracking down on false news and foreign propaganda masquerading as domestic political content. Like any digital news operation, these pages often link to sites where they can run ads. The page Donald Trump Is Our President, for example, only posts links to FBNewsCycle.com, while USA Patriots for Trump only posts links to the website Magavoter.com.
I found Ilovemyfreedom.org over the summer while searching through Facebook’s database of political ads. I wanted to see what kinds of messages conservatives were trying to amplify about White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders after she was denied service at a restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. A handful of the ads—that is, Facebook posts whose reach a page owner had paid to boost, often while using Facebook’s tools to target specific audiences—linked to Ilovemyfreedom.org, which is brimming with headlines about how Democrats are failing, why Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers are liars, and how Trump is a beloved leader who’s saved the country. There’s also an online store where one can buy Donald Trump commemorative coins, socks, or a shirt that reads “Extremely Deplorable.”
Ilovemyfreedom.org doesn’t make it easy to find the people who run it. It took calling phone numbers listed on archived versions of the site, searching a Minnesota business registry, and tracking down Twitter accounts that posted links to the site to finally find the individuals responsible for the content. Those people turned out to be Keirns; Jack Murphy, who’s in his early 20s; and Al Ferretti, a 50-year-old resident of Minneapolis who started Ilovemyfreedom.org. Ferretti also owns a company called Making Web Profits that specializes in digital marketing for dental practices.
Ferretti launched Ilovemyfreedom.org along with a Facebook page, Trump for President Fan Club, in 2016, as the presidential election was heating up. As the page started to attract more followers that summer, Ferretti began contacting other pro-Trump Facebook pages that were developing audiences to see if there was room for collaboration. That’s how he met his eventual business partners: Keirns, who is based in Southern California, as well as Murphy, who is based in Kansas and who mostly focuses on the e-commerce site. Ferretti’s page, which he renamed President Donald Trump Fan Club after the election, now boasts more than 1.4 million followers. Ilovemyfreedom.org is technically a project of Making Web Profits. All three partners told me in July that they make a living from the operation, which they said is profitable, though they wouldn’t share any financial numbers. They did say that Ilovemyfreedom.org gets between 5 and 10 million page views. (They didn’t specify whether that was unique or total views.) Beyond ad revenue, the site makes money through its online store. When I asked to talk again with the trio in October, they declined.
Keirns, Murphy, and Ferretti told me they attribute their success to the sincerity of their work—they’re true Trump believers—and the close attention they pay to what their readers want to interact with. As Keirns put it, these readers are seeking affirmation for their right-leaning views and support of Trump, something they don’t find in the mainstream media, which they distrust. In that way, these pages are meme-laden, more-explosive complements to Fox News, which is one of the most successful publishers on Facebook, but can only pump out so much content each day.
“Like, with our audience, these people are not looking at Huffington Post or Occupy Democrats, which is the liberal version of us,” Keirns said. “They don’t like those pages. They have customized their feeds to see pro-Trump stuff.” And that pro-Trump stuff gets a tremendous amount of engagement, often receiving thousands of likes and shares, particularly when the mainstream press is focused on a story that casts Trump or his policies in a bad light.
“It just seems like 50 percent of the country is watching a different movie than the other 50 percent,” Keirns said. “You know, you have 50 percent who said they had the worst day in the world and say that they need therapy or whatever after Justice Kennedy announced his retirement, and the other 50 percent is rejoicing.” Ilovemyfreedom.org is there for that second 50 percent. The page runners told me that they don’t consider what they do to be journalism, but as something akin to conservative commentary.
Take a headline from last week on Ilovemyfreedom.org: “Nancy Pelosi’s Top Legislative Priority Would Punish Those Who Criticize LGBT Issues.” The article gives Trump fans something to share that’s on the news, with a far-right slant that paints a fairly inaccurate portrait of what Pelosi is actually proposing, which is that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 be expanded to include federal anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ-identifying people. The point is to protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation beyond the workplace, like in health care, restaurants, or housing. But on Ilovemyfreedom.org, the story is about how people who might deny service to LGBTQ people because of their own beliefs would themselves become targets of discrimination. When the site isn’t lionizing Trump, it focuses on stories that portray Trump or his supports as victims of liberal zeal. Another post from last week focuses on hate mail received by a rabbi of the Tree of Life synagogue, the site of the shooting that left 11 dead, after he said in a statement that President Trump would always be welcome at the place of worship. The article then claims that the shooter’s anti-Semitism “perfectly matches the hateful anti-Jewish rhetoric frequently used by the Democrat Party and its allies,” which is offered as a quote, but with no attribution. It’s the only post on the Pittsburgh shooting to be found on the site.
The three partners say they now pay about 10 people to work on the operation, including article writers and page managers. The core three are all ferocious consumers of news, and they do the work of deciding what is and isn’t a story, which often means turning to trusted conservative sources for guidance. “We are so involved in the news and politics. We got notifications that come to our phone, and we just kind of pick and choose what we want,” said Keirns. “A lot of the times Matt Drudge is our go-to guy, so if I’m writing a story and something big happens or if I get a notification from Fox News, the first thing I do is type in drudgereport.com and see everything, and I go to all the links and click through those.” Then they write their version of the story.
After running these pages for two years, the team has learned what engages its fan base, which these days means negative coverage of immigrants, CNN, and female Democratic politicians like Maxine Waters, Nancy Pelosi, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Any criticism of Trump makes for good fodder too. The page creators told me their audience “went nuts” when Jimmy Kimmel made fun of Melania Trump’s accent and were furious when Robert De Niro said, “Fuck Trump” at the Tony Awards. “That does nothing but bond people closer to Trump,” Keirns said. “I mean, nobody is going to join the left side if they see talking like that, and what’s kind of crazy is that after Trump won, we heard the left say, ‘Oh we have to find a way to speak to these Trump supporters.’ ”
Keirns told me he realized just how divided the country is when the Access Hollywood tape came out toward the end of the 2016 campaign. “We posted a survey on our page and it said, ‘Do you still stand with Trump,’ and I believe it had close to like 100,000 people who voted and said yes,” he told me. The top comment below the Access Hollywood tape poll was: “If people are offended by Trump’s words, then who in the hell bought the several hundred million copies of 50 Shades of Gray.” That comment, Keirns says, got thousands of likes. “I just took a step back and said, ‘Very interesting, I don’t think [the election] is over quite yet.’ ”
Ferretti, Keirns, and Murphy take seriously Mark Zuckerberg’s comments in 2017 about how he wants to build a platform for all ideas—their business couldn’t work without Facebook, after all. But they seem to have a clear awareness of what is welcome on the platform and what is not. In addition to its crackdown on foreign propaganda and false news, Facebook has been purging domestic political pages that the company classifies as spam. Facebook said it took down more than 800 pages in October that appeared to be political groups but instead posted stories that took people to websites for the purpose of showing them ads. The Ilovemyfreedom.org pages remain up, however, perhaps because they tend to avoid hoaxes and instead write opinion pieces and news aggregation—albeit sometimes with misleading framings—on topics in the headlines.
None of this will give comfort to anyone worried about the synergistic relationship between political polarization and Facebook engagement. Pages like the ones Ferretti, Keirns, and Murphy run appear to break none of the rules that govern the Facebook news feed, but their entire business is premised on the insight that partisan self-victimization and fear of immigrants and elites will lead to clicks, and therefore cash. All of this was still the case for this cycle’s election, and unless something about the incentives that drive Facebook engagement change dramatically, it will probably be the case for the next one too.