From the moment he declared his candidacy, President Donald Trump commanded legions of online followers. Now, having helped him win the White House, factions of self-made social media operatives are redirecting their skills and infrastructure to promote other candidates nationwide.
Some are even vying to spin their experiences from the presidential race into new business models, seeking to promote other candidates by paying pro-Trump Twitter users to tweet and retweet scripted messages.
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Pro-Trump tweeters say they deserve at least partial credit for defeating Hillary Clinton, as well as for the string of Republican victories in recent special elections. A handful are pursuing paid gigs from aspiring conservative politicians, pitching their organized — and often secretive — follower networks to “America First” candidates willing to pay.
It’s an unproven concept, one viewed with skepticism by established campaign veterans and with varying levels of disdain by those who tweet Trump’s virtues for free. After all, Twitter derives its power from authentic, grass-roots messaging. But pay-to-tweet enthusiasts say they’re selling the future of social media strategy and that candidates won’t have any choice but to pay.
One for-profit operative, Robert Shelton, promises client-candidates “name recognition beyond anything other mediums can offer” via his network of “social media warriors” in every state, according to a freshly launched website.
Tamara Leigh, a former business partner of Shelton’s and image consultant for commercial and political clients alike, claims her own network of loyal tweeters. Leigh said plenty of other Twitter operatives are “chasing candidates,” although she didn’t name her competitors or clients.
“We have a few irons in the fire, and are gearing up for fall 2017 and kicking off the 2018 midterm elections,” said Leigh.
These Twitter networks are organized around “rooms” — message boards created by bringing up to 50 individuals into ongoing, private conversations. Shelton advertises that he and his business partner, Anita White, manage dozens of rooms.
Hundreds or even thousands of these pro-Trump forums coalesced on Twitter during the presidential campaign, members said in interviews. Impossible to count or even find except by invitation from an administrator, the rooms vary in internal rules, structure and focus. They share the unified purpose of coordinating tweets, videos and memes in support of Trump and his platform.
Many people are members of multiple rooms, and a single administrator may likewise oversee several rooms simultaneously.
“If you do a tweet, you can put it into every group you’re a member of,” Shelton said. “It’s an expectation that everyone in the room will retweet what you put in there.”
The rooms started as a loose network to ridicule Clinton with the hashtags and memes du jour — #LockHerUp or Soros-as-puppetmaster, for instance. But administrators learned to harness them to spread new talking points, often based off Trump’s own early morning post or breaking events, like Clinton’s stumble at the 9/11 memorial service that was spun into #ClintonCollapse and scores of memes about her health.
Room members who spoke with POLITICO said their efforts during the presidential race were unpaid and that they worked without input from the Trump campaign, aside from his own Twitter flurries.
“It actually is quite incredible how many dedicated patriots devoted a great deal of time, effort and talent to tweeting for Trump and America with no expectation of financial benefit, or at least that was a secondary motivation,” said Leigh.
After the election and a couple months off Twitter, Shelton realized the rooms could be repurposed to support like-minded candidates across the country, and decided to pitch them as a paid promotional service.
He filed to reinstate a business he incorporated in Georgia, his home state, and rebranded both his Twitter handle and assemblage of rooms — which up to that point had various names for organizational purposes — under the @RobertsRooms umbrella.
Asked about the rebranding, Shelton said it arose from the need to project professionalism.
“@RobertsRooms became the vehicle for monetizing,” said Leigh a bit more bluntly.
Shelton sent out a call: "We are adding more rooms. In these rooms you will be PAID for your RETWEETS. THIS IS FOR REAL."
“Stop the noise and make some money,” he added.
The very idea of marketing this kind of online advocacy is contentious among the room dwellers.
“This could turn into an IRS nightmare! Good luck,” one member, who goes by the name Pinball, gloated on Twitter recently. “I do not associate with anyone trying to monetize supporting POTUS and his efforts at draining the swamp,” another said when asked about Shelton’s venture.
Shelton and Leigh have no such qualms.
“I would never advocate paying someone to tweet for, say, some product, say, towels. That would be worse than shady,” Shelton said, arguing that his aim is to maximize exposure for candidates. “So, if paying people to hit the retweet button works, then I believe paying is a good thing for the candidate in question.”
Twitter defines itself as a grass-roots forum. But the 2016 race spawned a number of studies suggesting that plenty of tweets about the election were automated. One research group estimated that 20 percent or more of posts about the presidential debates came from highly automated accounts.
Room members said they are careful to weed out bots, but some worry that a profit motive might similarly undercut Twitter’s validity as a platform for political debate and expression.
Philosophical controversies aside, it’s unclear whether monetizing #MakeAmericaGreatAgain will get results worth buying. Shelton’s first two attempts failed to land any lucrative contracts.
Chris Chamberlin, a gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota, was not impressed with his test run, particularly given Shelton’s proposed fee of $6,000. Shelton did not remember whether that was the figure, but Leigh, who was working as press secretary for Chamberlin at the time, confirmed it.
For a couple weeks in April, the @RobertsRooms network coordinated retweets of Chamberlin’s posts and distributed memes, including one claiming a Minnesota state legislator is “pro-jihad.” None of this material took off in the way Chamberlin expected.
“That’s kind of a concern if you’re boasting as part of the reason Trump got elected,” Chamberlin said in an interview.
“Not to say Robert isn’t talented,” he added. “But being charged dollars for a service that may or may not work is at best a risky option.”
Another preliminary contract was structured around how much money the @RobertsRooms network could help raise for Michel Faulkner, who at the time was running for New York City mayor. The contract fell apart when Faulkner pivoted to run for NYC comptroller in late May. Faulkner declined an interview about his campaign’s arrangement with Shelton and Leigh.
Shelton said he will bill future clients based on “impressions” — how many people see a given tweet — and that the value of his network is visibility. This can enhance fundraising efforts, he believes, but indirectly.
“I honestly don’t think I can instigate somebody giving you money. I think I can facilitate — make your name a household word,” he said. “After 60 days, we’ve publicized so much that your fundraiser calls somebody up on the phone, and they remember the tweets they saw.”
Coordination in the Twitter rooms can make them a booming megaphone, particularly for candidates without much of a social media presence themselves. As evidence, room members point to their efforts in recent special elections.
In an analysis of Twitter posts about the Georgia special election, POLITICO found that Shelton’s network — which is easily traceable via a distinct hashtag, unlike activity originating in many other rooms — accounted for a starkly disproportionate share of traffic. More than one-third of positive tweets in our sample that mentioned GOP nominee Karen Handel by name came from accounts that used his hashtag, and more than 70 percent that tagged her official campaign account.
Handel’s campaign staff and Shelton alike said he received no payment for promoting her candidacy.
Shelton estimates that the network he and White manage contains around 1,500 people total with a combined following of 10 million on Twitter. Most members are 35 to 55 years old, he guesses, and approximately 80 percent of them are women.
But skeptics wonder how much of a role, if any, Shelton and his compatriots’ work can play in reaching undecided voters or getting conservatives to the polls.
“Twitter is a mouthpiece to be able to get a message out quickly and efficiently, but is limited in its ability to reach individual targets at scale given the limited user base,” said Matt Oczkowski, former head of product at the conservative data firm Cambridge Analytica and one of the heads of Trump’s digital team.
“It all comes down to proving that a program like this works, and I’m not sure there is an easy way to quantify its effect."
Two candidates in talks with Shelton said they see plenty of measurable value.
“When they approached us, it was, ‘Let us show you what we can do. Then we’ll talk about pricing,’” said Angel Rivera, a gubernatorial candidate in Florida. Rivera gained 8 to 10,000 followers during a test run with @RobertsRooms, plus millions of views on his campaign’s social media posts, he said.
Omar Navarro, a California candidate hoping to challenge Democrat Maxine Waters for her House seat, has also been impressed with Shelton’s preliminary work on his campaign. Neither Navarro nor Rivera said how much money they would consider paying. Shelton said he had other contracts in the works but that nondisclosure agreements barred him from discussing them.
Leigh expects some may try to get these kind of services for free after watching so many volunteers tweet enthusiastically for Trump. But campaigns will have to start paying, she insists.
“People tweeted for Trump 24/7 for almost two years because we were all so passionate about making sure he was elected,” said Leigh. “But that’s not sustainable, and people grow weary.”
“So you can rely on ‘volunteers,’ but campaigns need the professionals organizing it. And that will cost them.”