It was a campaign video that reached seemingly every Democratic corner of the internet: former President Barack Obama’s 12-minute endorsement of his former vice president and indictment of the current president. On Obama’s Facebook page, one of the most popular destinations in politics with 55.3 million followers, his endorsement of Joe Biden was viewed more than 4 million times.
But another Facebook page, run by twin brothers who immigrated from Mexico, reached substantially more eyes. Their reposting of Obama’s endorsement, with a simple “BREAKING” text over the video, clocked more than 23 million views.
Meet Rafael and Omar Rivero, the co-founders of Occupy Democrats, the social media mavens of the left who are quickly emerging as a counterweight to the dominance of right-wing online sites.
In a presidential race playing out on iPhones and screens more than any in history, in part because of the coronavirus pandemic, these digital entrepreneurs can drive the political conversation online and influence how candidates are seen as much as a campaign’s well-funded digital advisers can.
The twins, 33, started the Occupy Democrats Facebook page eight years ago and, combined with an accompanying website, they have reached a digital dominance rarely seen among liberals — one that keeps pace with viral news sites and regularly outperforms President Donald Trump’s own page, as well as the Daily Caller, Fox News and other right-wing websites or personalities. What was once a hobby between gigs has grown into a full-fledged, full-time operation with five additional staffers.
Over the past month, nearly half of the 40 top-performing videos on Facebook that mention “Trump” were from Occupy Democrats. They have had a top-10 performing post on Facebook regularly for months. A video they recently posted called “The Liar Tweets Tonight,” sung by a choir of individually recorded voters to the tune of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” was viewed 41 million times, among the most-watched videos on Facebook over the past month.
“Democratic voters are tired of the Democratic Party kind of taking barrages from Republicans on the right on social media and Trump himself, taking that lying down and not fighting back,” Omar Rivero said. “So we fight back with the truth. But we make sure that we punch them in the mouth with the truth.”
Though they claim not to have taken tactics from the right, there are some clear commonalities between the Occupy Democrats posts and some of the right-wing sites that have mastered the art of writing shareable copy that acts like gasoline on a social media outrage fire — amplified by anger-inducing adjectives contextualizing the news, or an all-caps “BREAKING” to introduce a post.
They also are relentless in their posting on Facebook. On Sunday, a relatively slow news day by the Trump-era pandemic standards, the Facebook page published 80 items, a mix of original, text-heavy memes; cross-posts from Biden’s social media pages; commentary with links to mainstream news stories and videos; and links to original posts on the Occupy Democrats website.
It has helped them earn 25 million more interactions than Trump’s page, and 63 million more interactions than Biden’s over the past 30 days on Facebook, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned data tool.
Occupy Democrats is a rare bright spot for a party and political wing that once was proudly “the party of tech” but has since ceded nearly every digital stronghold to the right. As Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is moving headlong into a general election with a digital operation that is dwarfed by the Trump campaign, the Occupy team has started to step in.
“I think one of the big mistakes of 2016 was not immediately embracing Hillary as a change agent and as someone to get excited about,” Rafael Rivero said.
Rafael also wanted to prove that, yes, Biden could indeed go viral.
On the same day Sen. Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign, Rafael started the “Ridin’ with Biden 2020” page, employing meme tactics, social media copy and video promotion similar to those that power the central Occupy Democrats page.
An Avengers-esque meme of Biden, Jill Biden, Obama and Michelle Obama striding across the White House lawn overlaid with the text “When America Was Great” reached 2.2 million viewers.
Soon, the “Ridin’ With Biden” page was outperforming the campaign’s own account, with their own content.
A digital video ad released by the Biden campaign received more than 1 million views on Facebook, a successful showing for most campaigns. But on “Ridin’ With Biden,” it got 8.6 million views, with little added window dressing than text on the video that read: “Holy cow … this Biden ad is GOOD.”
When the Occupy page shared the live video of Hillary Clinton endorsing Biden, the live viewership jumped from 15,000 to 25,000 in a matter of minutes.
Democratic campaign operatives note that these types of booming online communities benefit from being a bit rougher around the edges.
“They’re able to say things that are not quite as polished as what the parties are going to produce or what the Biden campaign is going to produce, or any campaign,” said Kenneth Pennington, a Democratic digital strategist who was Sanders’ digital director in 2016. “But it’s kind of the unvarnished, unpolished stuff that actually does really well online because people are seeking that kind of authentic sass.”
Pennington added that these types of pages can help boost a campaign as well, crediting a different Facebook page — The People for Bernie Sanders — as one of the reasons Sanders catapulted “from a no-shot candidate into an online sensation that raised $230 million in 2016.”
While the social media dominance of Occupy Democrats may surprise some, social media experts note that there has always been a liveliness among liberal groups online, but they just get less attention.
Whitney Phillips, a media studies and communications professor at Syracuse University, said the reported distress on the left about “losing the edge on social media” wasn’t the full picture. “The framing is maybe not fully representing all of the activity and all the vibrancy that’s happening on the left because all the stories get written about what Ben Shapiro is up to,” she said, referring to the popular conservative writer.
Occupy Democrats does try to give readers their vegetables, too. A post about Sen. Mitch McConnell’s comments on the newest Democratic proposal for a coronavirus relief package, for example, included highlights from the Democratic proposal.
“People clicked to be mad about McConnell, but while they read about that, they learn about what the Democrats are doing,” said Colin Taylor, the editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. “In this kind of outrage-heavy online sphere, it’s kind of hard to get people’s attention with the more wonky stuff.”
The group’s origins date to the movement that informs its name — and a dissatisfaction with it. The Rivero twins found themselves in Zuccotti Park back in 2012, when the Occupy movement had camped out in lower Manhattan and quickly garnered a national news profile. Both brothers were drawn to the ideals of the movement — economic equality, social justice and addressing climate change — but they saw the Occupy movement’s leaderless ethos as a critical failure, and one that would never allow it to grow.
“I looked around and thought, wow, there’s not a single Occupy congressman,” Omar Rivero said. “In the end, we’re not pulling the levers of power. So I thought, well, you know, maybe we should try to make Occupy a force that not only helps Democrats but also keeps them honest. Similar to what the Tea Party is doing to Republicans.”
Omar started the Facebook page after leaving a job at an investment bank — “working for the man at a bank” — heavy in debt to both the federal government and his mother after earning an undergraduate degree from Cornell University and a master’s degree from ESCP Europe. In between side gigs cleaning short-term rental apartments, and sometimes while cleaning, he continued to build an audience. But he needed help with the visuals.
Omar turned to his twin brother, who was running his own real-estate rental business in Miami at the time, to put his graphic design background to use and join the effort.
“My mom staged an intervention, literally, with my aunt and uncle,” Rafael said. “They thought, you guys got the scholarships to Swarthmore and Cornell, and you guys are throwing all that away to focus on something called a Facebook page.”
But with Rafael making memes, the page began to grow. Quickly. The two moved to California and lived in a friend’s pool house. When the demand for content grew beyond the twins’ capabilities, they posted hiring ads on Craigslist. Taylor, a former line cook who blogged on the side, was their first hire, and the pool house soon doubled as the Occupy newsroom, now with multiple writers churning out dozens of posts a day, building both the Facebook page and the website into traffic machines.
They survived the reorientation of the Facebook algorithm after the 2016 election — which pushed down independent, less verified sites in favor of more mainstream news content — by repeatedly boosting and sharing mainstream news articles, introduced with their own spin. Though they had to lay off a few writers in the wake of those Facebook changes, they have kept churning out content.
And, of course, countless memes.
The memes and videos are what generate the most engagement, and Occupy Democrats’ white-and-yellow text on a black background both grabs the eye with its harsh color contrast and conveys a sense of urgency. Distilling the news into a single shareable photo that remains on Facebook has quickly caught on, particularly among older users.
But with this newfound power, the Rivero brothers want to expand and build a broader network with other Democrats.
“We’re not only the largest political network on Facebook, but we’re the largest partisan political network on Facebook,” said Omar. “And I think that the Democrats should take advantage of that.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.