News Politics

Scoop: Progressives build massive, cloaked online powerhouse

Lachlan Markay

Progressive strategists have quietly built a massive network of social media communities in political battleground states that can activate ahead of elections and policy fights, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The network, operating under the name Real Voices Media, uses apolitical, nonideological content to build up audiences. It then leverages the crowd on behalf of clients in what experts say is a potent persuasion strategy. President Biden and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer are beneficiaries.

  • During an interview with Axios, RVM managing director Heather Holdridge provided previously unreported details about its mission and structure.

What’s happening: Facebook and Instagram users in Michigan started seeing ads last month promoting stories by a new news site, the Main Street Sentinel.

The aggregated content — from both news sources and the White House itself — touched on skyrocketing gas prices and broader price inflation, blaming corporate price gouging and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and mirroring lines from the Biden administration.

It’s not clear who’s behind the site. Its listed publisher, Star Spangled Media LLC, was formed last month in New York and lists a registered agent service as its only officer.

The Sentinel did not respond to requests for comment.

  • The Sentinel has spent about $120,000 on ads since last month. Most have run on its flagship Facebook and Instagram pages.
  • But it’s also paid to run dozens of ads through Michigan-specific pages overseen by Real Voices Media, including Stand Up 4 Michigan’s Middle Class, A Working Michigan and Michigan Black & Bougie.

Those are just a few of the more than 400 pages that RVM oversees, according to Holdridge, who said its combined audience is about 1.9 million people.

  • Founded in 2019, RVM received early investment from Will Robinson, a Democratic strategist and partner at The New Media Firm, but isn’t affiliated with that firm, Holdridge said. She declined to name other investors.
  • RVM pages have hosted thousands of Facebook and Instagram ads since 2019, with $500,000 spent on paid posts on the platforms, according to political advertising data from Meta, the social media sites’ parent company.

How it works: RVM oversees the digital properties under its umbrella. But their front-facing content is produced by creators recruited and trained to originally build social media followings focused on specific states and topics.

  • Many focus on politically competitive states such as Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
  • Others target specific groups, some in granular detail: African Americans, Spanish speakers, LGBT people, seniors, parents, students, veterans, teachers, homeschoolers, small-business owners, medical professionals, service workers, local sports fans, gamers and foodies.
  • Most of the pages build up audiences with typical, apolitical social media fare — news stories, memes, discussion of local issues or shared interests.
  • “Our community managers have wide latitude over what they might be posting on any given day,” Holdridge told Axios.

Between the lines: Those organic roots are what make RVM a potentially potent persuasion tool.

  • “The fact that we have built up these communities around nonpolitical things, but just around everyday interests, every day affinities where they live … that presents an opportunity for folks who want to reach everyday people.”

During the 2020 cycle, influence among nonpolitical obsessives was used to serve voter registration and turnout ads in key swing states through a host of RVM pages.

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