Culp posing next to a supporter during an October rally. Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images
At first, Loren Culp’s campaign looked like a scam to sell copies of his cop memoir. Then he won second place in the Washington State gubernatorial primary, beating out a Republican State Senator, a well-heeled churchy mayor, an establishment-backed “moderate,” and the state’s most famous grifter, Tim Eyman.
But how did a “police chief” from a town with one police officer do it?
After all, his timid and at times awkward stage presence doesn’t exactly electrify. He doesn’t possess the compellingly demented logorrhea of a Trump, nor the soaring rhetoric of an Obama.
He does hold extreme, anti-democratic views that align with the science-blind anger of the maniacs who stormed the Capitol steps in Olympia last April to protest public health mandates, but the other Republicans held similar views.
And his identities do combine to form a sort of MechWarrior of right-wing victimhood: he was a small business owner and a cop and a veteran and a white guy who lives east of the mountains. If he were also a small landlord he’d be the most victimized person ever to run for office in the state by GOP standards. But, again, the other Republican candidates had compelling backgrounds, too.
Traditional media certainly played a large role upfront. As many reported, Culp’s profile rose after he made a big stink of not enforcing voter-approved gun laws in his tiny jurisdiction. Fox News and other right-wing outlets invited him onto their programs as a guest, which introduced him to a broader audience within the conservative bubble.
But we can’t conclude this gawd-awful election season without addressing the fact that Culp’s campaign, which is run by Christopher Gergen, who directed Trump’s 2016 campaign in Oregon, kicked almost everybody’s ass at Facebook.
The Culp Campaign’s Facebook Thirst
The Culp campaign regularly touts Facebook as key to its strategy. Consider the campaign’s online ad, “Together We Are Made For This,” caps and ellipses theirs:
“THERE IS ONLY ONE CANDIDATE…WITH AN ONLINE COMMUNITY…LARGER THAN THE WASHINGTON STATE DEMOCRATIC FACEBOOK PAGE…LARGER THAN THE WASHINGTON STATE REPUBLICAN FACEBOOK PAGE…” and that’s Culp’s, reads the late July ad.
Right now, over 80,000 people follow Culp’s official Facebook page. Private and/or special-interest Culp groups (e.g. Culp for Gov, Bikers for Loren Culp for WA Governor 2020, King County, S. Snohomish County CULP for Governor of Washington) boast hundreds or thousands of members, too.
Meanwhile, just over 40,000 people follow the State Dems page, and a little over 34,000 people follow the State GOP page. None of the other Republican gubernatorial candidates—not even TV news camera-hog Tim Eyman—came close to those numbers on social media in the run-up to the primary. Jay Inslee wins this competition with over 150,000 Facebook followers. Still, he built that base after a long career in public office, including two terms as governor of Washington and a generally well-received (among Democrats, at least) presidential run. Culp’s page started in July of 2019.
Culp’s campaign runs Twitter and Instagram accounts, but many of its posts direct followers back to Facebook, either via direct links or crossposted events.
After directing his followers to his preferred platform, Culp explicitly tells them how to use Facebook’s algorithms to increase the “organic reach” of posts. Recently he’s been publishing a video series called “Lunch with Loren,” wherein he takes a few jabs at “King Inslee” or whatever and then pleads with his followers not just to like, share, or comment on his post but to do the same on other posts as well.
“This is the 2nd most important part,” he writes in a recent video update post, “got [sic] to the Comments [sic] of this FB live post and give us a link here in the comments to where you posted it. Everyone else please visit the other links in the comments to support the other people who comment. Visit them and give them a like too. Even if you did this yesterday, do it again today! The people who are going to read your post are entirely different from those who will see if today.”
And dutifully enough, his followers like and share away. A good one pulls a thousand comments, a thousand reactions, and a couple hundred shares.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with exploiting social media tools to build political influence. As the leaders of big tech firms love to argue, these platforms remove gatekeepers, break down barriers to the political process, and allow small-time candidates to make big-time names on the cheap. And that promise would be cool and noble and good if Culp and GOP groups didn’t draw conspiratorial content rendered dangerous in the context of a pandemic, and if Facebook moderated content effectively, but those groups do draw conspiratorial content, and Facebook doesn’t moderate effectively.
Cruising Some GOP Facebook Groups
To see what it’s like to live in Facebook’s version of Culpland, late last summer I browsed a sock-puppet account created by a Democratic researcher who follows Republicans to help with campaigns.
The tracker used the account to follow the Facebook pages of around 70 elected Republican officials in Washington. Apart from some “wild” comments here and there, the posts that filled his feed at this point “weren’t crazy,” he said. Most politicians posted banal stuff, such as articles from news outlets they like or nice photos from their weekend.
Then the tracker started following public and private Facebook groups such as Culp for Governor (which boasted 61,000 followers at the time of our interview), Make Washington Red Again (a private Facebook group where Republican State House Rep. Jim Walsh posts, which boasted 3,400 members), and Patriots We Stand Together (a public group with 600 members, including Rep. Walsh).
Though he only followed eight of these groups, his feed almost immediately filled with nonsense and “became worthless” for tracking the actual politicians.
“I just started getting nonstop shitposts from the groups,” the tracker said. “My job was literally becoming impossible because I was getting shit-flooded with this stuff.”
He could have endured the flood if members posted regular political content, “but they’re really not posting regular political content,” he said.
Normal political discourse.
The tracker pulled up a screenshot of a deranged meme titled ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE, which a user dropped in a Culp for Governor comment thread along with the phrase, “in the SWAMP.”
The meme advances a conspiracy theory about a shadow government run by the Rothschilds, the Vatican, the Windsors, and the Rockefellers, who allegedly somehow caused the COVID-19 pandemic and racial strife in America to inject microchip-enhanced vaccines into the population and to establish a “New World Order” with a “cashless system.” A demon with a dollar sign branded into his forehead puts the cherry on top of this blatantly antisemitic sundae. Here’s a better look:
Still waiting from my check from these people.
But people also posted subtler antisemitic memes. The meme-creator stylized the following image as a newspaper editorial cartoon of a puppeteer. The puppeteer’s strings attach to a medical mask wrapped around a man’s face, and the letters “NWO” appear on the puppet master’s cuff. “NWO” stands for New World Order, a conspiracy theory propagated in the antisemitic text, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
A subtler shade of antisemitism.
To their credit, the Culp for Governor Facebook page moderators took down these images and banned the posters, according to the tracker. But the run-of-the-mill, all-caps militia stuff from the three-percenters is pretty intense, too:
Saw this puppy on Culp’s Facebook page, but the page moderators also took it down.
In the Make Washington Red Again group, users can see fun Proud Boy / QAnon memes like this:
That is….not the thing the left fears.
According to the tracker, though page moderators ultimately removed these posts, Facebook dumped nonsense like this, including many non-antisemitic anti-mask memes that got high engagement, into his news feed at higher rates than it did content from elected politicians. In the context of a pandemic, that presents somewhat of a problem for the alarmingly large number of people who get most of their news from social media.
The fact that madness floods the tracker’s feed is no accident. In recent years, Facebook changed its algorithms to fill news feeds with posts that earn high engagement. The company says they made the change to improve Facebook users’ experience, but the change also improved Facebook’s finances. That’s because users who engage with posts stay on the platform longer, which makes the website more attractive to advertisers.
Facebook also retooled its platform to drive people into Facebook Groups, where those often highly inflammatory posts can bounce around in private echo chambers and gain more engagement.
Once people start signing up for these groups, Facebook’s algorithm starts recommending related groups. So following the Republican standard-bearer in Washington, whose feed occasionally fills with radical shit, can lead users into even more radical online spaces.
A Facebook engineer who worked on groups told The Verge “they found the group recommendation algorithm to be the single scariest feature of the platform—the darkest manifestation, they said, of data winning arguments.”
“They try to give you a mix of things you’re part of and not part of, but the aspect of the algorithm that recommends groups that are similar to the one that you’re part of are really dangerous,” the engineer said. “That’s where the bubble generation begins. A user enters one group, and Facebook essentially pigeonholes them into a lifestyle that they can never really get out of.”
Or, as one Democratic strategist put it, “They think it will help build community, which it does, but mostly among conspiracy theorists who end up supporting fascists.”
The end result of these changes is a social media platform that houses increasingly extreme environments with less and less supervision from anyone who isn’t already part of the group.
And right-wing commentators and outlets dominate those spaces, the New York Times reports, with blowhards such as Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino topping daily lists of the website’s highest-performing posts. Last week Mother Jones reported that Facebook “throttled” progressive outlets on the platform when they changed the news feed, which gave conservative outlets an advantage.
As we were admiring photos of Culp supporters wearing elaborate biker costumes on the Bikers for Loren Culp page, a member of the group posted a weirdo right-wing video called “Patriot Fury.” The video features a masked man with an altered voice advancing a theory that governments and Facebook are using the pandemic to destroy the “Constitutional republic” one patriot at a time in order to institute “socialism and communism.” As the video switches from clips of protests to clips of right-wing mobs fighting protesters, the masked man urges the “silent majority” to overthrow the government. The post had 1.2K comments and tens of thousands of shares.
The moderator for Bikers for Loren Culp appears to have removed the post, but they missed this blatant (though admittedly underperforming) QAnon content:
At the end of this video, a young woman encourages viewers to take some kind of QAnon pledge.
The tracker said sifting through this glut of insane and sometimes antisemitic content stressed him out. “It’s like, you go outside and the sky’s blue and then you go on your computer and they say it’s raining blood—it’s a little weird,” he said.
This sort of stuff rolls off the back of young, Very Online liberals, but the tracker imagines a 60-year old with little-to-no internet literacy seeing this stuff during the hours they spend online and becoming radicalized. His concern isn’t without merit. Recent research shows that Facebook politically polarizes its users, especially conservatives. That study found “Facebook usage is five times more polarizing for conservatives than for liberals.”
And the spread of misinformation, especially among the olds, is rampant. “On average, American Facebook users aged 65 and older posted seven times as many articles from fake news websites as adults 29 and younger,” says a New York Times analysis of a study in Science Advances.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We could pass laws that require Facebook to moderate its groups and pages more effectively, which some politicians on both sides of the aisle may pursue, but the company seems to have a hard time even complying with Washington’s campaign finance laws.
Facebook could also regulate itself better, either in little ways such adding a visible timer so users know how many hours they’ve wasted in the digital equivalent of a landfill, or in big ways such as hiring way more moderators and cracking down on groups. For what it’s worth, the company says it’s imposing harsher penalties on bad actors, but we’ll see how that goes.
It’d be one thing if the GOP spent a lot of time knocking down these conspiracies and de-escalating tensions, but their advertising feeds into it.
The ad the Washington state GOP has pinned to their Twitter feed is aesthetically indistinguishable from the conspiratorial militia porn people post in these Culp and Republican groups. Instead of trotting out researchers who can point to studies showing that more cops on the streets reduce arrests, for instance, they’re choosing to run stuff like this:
Culp’s campaign reflects this extremist rhetoric at his rallies, as well. Two weeks ago, after the FBI stymied right-wing plots to kidnap governors in Michigan and Virginia, and after a right-wing nutjob verbally accosted a woman in southwest Washington for distributing flyers supporting a Democratic candidate, Culp’s camp didn’t exactly call for calm.
At the “Unified Conservatives Protest Victory Protest Rally in Toledo #CULP2020,” Culp campaign manager Chris Gergen stood before a crowd and filled their brains with fear. He accused “the left” of somehow “sexualizing children,” and said that anyone who sexualized his children would be “liable to leave with a couple holes you weren’t born with.” The crowd seemed to catch his drift. He then compared the “tyranny” in Washington today to the tyranny American revolutionaries overthrew in 1776, and said he didn’t want the ladies and gentleman in the audience to “patty-cake” him.
“I want you to be angry with what the left has done,” Gergen said. “I want you to take that emotion out of this place tonight. I want you to go back to your homes, back to your communities. I want you to go back to the places that you came from. And I want you to stand tall and be seen. To speak loudly to be heard, and let the left know that they cannot have your family, they cannot have your home, they cannot have your business, they cannot have your school, they cannot have your town, they cannot have your state. I’m looking for somebody who get angry enough to take action and to do something in the name of freedom and liberty.”
Compare that disturbingly vague call to overthrow “tyrants” to the corny shit Bill Bryant was running during his 2016 gubernatorial race:
Or even the corny shit Republicans ran against State Sen. Manka Dhingra during her special election run in 2017:
Culp’s campaign didn’t respond when asked for comment on any of this stuff, but I’ll update this post if I hear back.
In the meantime, and I never thought I’d say this before, but, uh, after Loren Culp loses, can we please unplug Facebook and go back to the days of the mainstream Republicans making bad dad jokes about traffic? Washington politics can’t just be one side screaming about “tyrants” and the other side trying to follow expert advice on public health policy.