Political Donors Put Their Money Where the Memes Are

“There was a ton of anger on the left and many progressives looking for something to do,” Mr. Eldridge told me in an interview. “Particularly on social media, the existing political media was pretty slow to respond.”

That page quickly grew to have 1.1 million followers, and has expanded beyond graphics and news stories to include efforts like a Facebook bot that helped more than 100,000 users send faxes to their representatives. For Mr. Eldridge, the return on investment has been shockingly high.

“We’ve spent in the low six figures to reach, on average, 10 million people a week,” he said.

Donor excitement about social media organizing, he added, is a “natural evolution toward a skepticism of TV and paid media, where you can spend a lot of money very quickly and not be sure what you’re getting for it.”

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An image from Milo Inc., a media outfit built around the alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

The ubiquity of social media, coupled with the low cost of production, has tempted donors from both parties. Palmer Luckey, the co-founder of the Facebook-owned virtual reality company Oculus, scandalized Silicon Valley last year by revealing that he had given $10,000 to Nimble America, a group that planned to place right-wing memes on billboards, T-shirts and other products. Mr. Luckey, who subsequently left Facebook, explained in a statement that he “thought the organization had fresh ideas on how to communicate with young voters.”

Nimble America has since folded, according to a representative who responded to an email sent to the group.

Wealthy donors aren’t newcomers to partisan media start-ups. The Huffington Post was conceived after John Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, and was supported at its outset by a slate of Democratic boosters including Arianna Huffington and the venture capitalist Kenneth Lerer. The Daily Caller, a conservative web publication, got its start in 2010 with $3 million in funding from the Republican megadonor Foster Friess.

What distinguishes the current wave of donors is a focus on social media — Facebook in particular — and a willingness to fund newcomers without ties to the media establishment.

John Sellers, a left-wing organizer and former Greenpeace activist, started a Facebook page called The Other 98% several years ago to promote his views on environmentalism, corporate…

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