The anti-Trump Lincoln Project has a reputation for goofy memes attacking the Trump administration online, so when they posted a whimsical fancam in support of the United States Postal Service on Twitter over the weekend, it seemed par for the course.
But the video was actually lifted without credit from Taylor Marsyla, a freelance artist, who posted the original video on Friday night. “Fuck it. USPS fancam,” Marsyla tweeted. The video took her around an hour to edit, stitching together random clips of mail trucks and photos of letter carriers set to “W.A.P.” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. She topped it off with a glittery effect and dreamy pink filter before uploading it and clicking post. Quickly, the video took off, racking up nearly 200,000 likes, 60,000 retweets, and two million views as of publication.
But when she woke up the next morning, her mentions weren’t just flooded with likes and retweets. There were also tags from people upset that her video had been posted to the Lincoln Project’s Twitter account without attribution. The PAC ripped the video directly from Twitter, changed the underlying song to something less explicit, and tweeted it out with less profane copy. “Screw it. USPS fancam,” the Lincoln Project tweet reads.
“I wasn’t surprised that it was stolen, but I was surprised by who it was stolen by. And the fact that they watered it down. Now it’s not funny,” Marsyla told The Verge in an interview Monday.
Marsyla’s fancam isn’t the only tweet the Lincoln Project has gotten in trouble for lifting without attribution. In July, the PAC reposted a meme from Vic Berger IV, a popular internet creator, without naming him in the tweet. “I made this image and the Iraqi child-killing neocons at The Lincoln Project stole it,” Berger tweeted in response last month, an apparent reference to the project-founders’ support for the Iraq War. The Lincoln Project did not respond to requests for comment from The Verge.
Berger and the other accounts are especially unhappy because the Lincoln Project’s centrist ideology is so opposed to their own. The organization was founded in 2019 by a group of current and former anti-Trump Republicans, including political operatives like strategist Rick Wilson and George Conway, conservative jurist and husband to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. The PAC has spent millions on advertising attacking the current president in recent months, but they’ve also racked up nearly two million followers on Twitter and nearly 350,000 on Instagram by trolling the administration in a manner that appeals to “the donor class” and “extremely online political junkies,” Reed Galen, a Lincoln Project cofounder, told Politico in July.
The Lincoln Project is operating under a playbook popularized by marketing groups like Jerry Media and accounts like @thefatjewish. For years, these accounts aggregated viral content from small creators without crediting them to build their own enormous followings. Jerry Media’s founder was forced to apologize for ripping off content in 2019, pledging to repost memes only after obtaining advanced consent from their original creators — but it doesn’t seem to have slowed down the group’s success.
The Lincoln Project has previously partnered with Meme 2020, an election project launched by Mick Purzycki, the CEO of Jerry Media, and the progressive viral media company Rhyme Combinator for an election meme campaign, according to The New York Times.
“Meme2020 had no involvement in the current Lincoln Project content under question,” a Meme2020 spokesperson told The Verge.
The Lincoln Project hasn’t made any public statements about how they approach lifting content without attribution, unlike Jerry Media. But conservatives memers come from online forums and message boards like the subreddit r/The_Donald and 4Chan where credit doesn’t matter as much as seeing popular Republican politicians and influencers repost content.
“There is a very constant flow of memes, jokes, and an entire culture on the right where attribution simply is not important,” says David Goldstein, CEO of Democratic digital consulting firm Tovo Lab. “What’s important is getting the big fish to go ahead and grab your content and promote it.”
There’s simply no equivalent of forums like /r/the_donald for Democrats, which can put candidates at a disadvantage. “So many of the left’s content creators are not affiliated with any kind of central hub or repository that we can routinely tap into,” Goldstein says. “That’s obviously really going to start to hurt if you’re a bigger account and you need a constant stream of content to push out to keep people engaged, keep growing your followership, and stay part of the conversation.”
Without the anarchic drive of a community like 4chan, the left’s meme accounts have learned to thrive on attribution and mutual support. It’s a large part of the reason Sen. Ed Markey’s (D-MA) campaign has seen a boost in support from “stan” accounts on Twitter. Markey’s digital team has pledged to release more “vintage” photos of the senator if his campaign account reaches a certain follower threshold, and followers encourage each other to share memes of Markey in his iconic sneakers. It’s more about building a community than snatching up and remixing memes. And for an outsider conservative group like the Lincoln Project, stealing content without attribution is doubly unacceptable.
Part of the offense comes from that party switch. Even though the Lincoln Project is backed by Republicans, it’s interacting and engaging with an audience of Democrats — or at least Democrat-curious Republicans. The content they pull comes from creators who lean left, and largely believe that their content deserves credit.
“If Future Former Republicans want to aid in the effort to defeat Donald Trump in November, I think that help is necessary,” Stefan Smith, digital campaign director for REFORM and former online engagement director for the Pete Buttigieg campaign told The Verge. “But when you’re a guest in somebody else’s house, you’ve got to abide by the house rules, and one thing that we don’t do on our side is steal from people.”
The victims aren’t all high-profile accounts like Berger, who has over 100,000 followers on both Twitter and Instagram, and is more than willing to fight back. The organization has ripped content off of small creators, too, where options are fewer and credit matters more.
“Who gets stolen from is the key question,” Smith said “If you’re a blue checkmark with 30,000 followers, and someone steals your tweet and puts it on an Instagram post and cuts off your username, does that hurt you? Yes, but the hurt is not proportional to, say, a small anime creator account that takes the time to edit together those fancams and share their support. That’s something they could materially could benefit from.”
Kelly Hui, an 18-year-old Twitter user, is one of those smaller accounts that could benefit from credit. Hui posted a tweet last month of a series of cute animal emojis holding heart-stamped letters with the text, “they’re voting by mail for Ed Markey.” A week later, the Lincoln Project reposted the same set of emojis, changing the copy to “They’re voting by mail for Biden.”
“I’m a young person,” Hui told The Verge. “I’m a woman of color. I also have like a very small internet presence and to see that sort of erasure of my tweet, even if it’s just like a couple cute emojis, to have it co-opted by the huge organization which to my understanding is probably run by middle-aged white men, it just sucks.”
Correction 8/18/20 at 4:15PM ET: Stefan Smith was the former online engagement director for the Pete Buttigieg campaign. The article previously referred to him as the “former online engagement editor.”
Updated 8/18/20 at 6:03 PM ET: Clarified that Meme 2020 is a separate entity from Jerry Media and partnered with the Lincoln Project on a previous meme campaign. Added a statement from Meme 2020.