On Thursday night in the Students For Markey’s Zoom phone bank, a group of prolific pro-Markey posters called @edsreplyguys rallied the troops.
“Everyone here is absurdly attractive without exception cause they support Markey,” one person wrote in the Zoom chat under the handle “Shrek for Markey.”
“PERIOODDDDD SHREK,” another replied under the name “harry styles stans for ed.”
By the end of the night, around 70 members of the Markeyverse were able to make 96,000 calls over the course of three hours, all while hyping each other up in the Zoom chat and requesting that the Students For Markey group play their favorite songs as they hit the virtual dialers together.
Forty-four years into his career as a legislator, Markey is facing a heated primary against Joseph P. Kennedy III, who’s been buoyed by his family legend and support from party power brokers like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Markey has responded by consolidating progressives, including endorsements from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), the Sunrise Movement, and a stan army ready to meme him into another term in office.
There are around 100 stan accounts backing the senator, operating under handles like @harries4markey and @barbz4ed. They’re mostly run by users in Massachusetts, but the fandom expands far past the Bay State. One of the most popular accounts, @edsreplyguys, is run by a group of five young people all across the country, including states like Utah and California.
The accounts’ fan content speaks the language of Generation Z and the internet. Stans have recreated vintage Markey ads in Minecraft and edited together clips of the senator in the style of anime opening credits. Sometimes they just post “ed markey” as a single tweet. According to Students For Markey, the less they think about the content, the better it does online.
“No thoughts, head empty,” Emerson Toomey, a founding member of the @edsreplyguys Twitter account said at Thursday’s phone bank, responding to a question about how they decide what to post.
As some of the account names suggest, many of the organizers are recent arrivals from other fandoms, whether it’s One Direction, Taylor Swift, or Broadway musicals like Hamilton. They learned their tactics from album drops and movie releases — and now they’re applying the tools they learned in online fandom to fight for the causes and races they support politically. Instead of posting “stream ‘Watermelon Sugar’” under viral tweets, Markey stans tack on links to donate or attend online events.
Students For Markey and @edsreplyguys are two of the most popular Markey accounts online, with both hovering around 2,500 followers on Twitter and with the student organization sitting at around 1,200 on Instagram as of publication. Toomey hatched the idea for the reply guys account in March, sending off a tweet from her personal Twitter asking if her followers would be interested in a “niche ed” account. People loved the idea, and the account launched with a handful of “reply guys,” some whom had never met each other in real life. The same goes for the student-led account, which has grown to around 600 youth organizers in their Slack community.
“I know at least two people in our group, when they were younger, had special Taylor Swift Twitter and Instagram accounts and were super into that,” Tristan Niedzielski, a member of the Students For Markey group told The Verge.
It’s not the first political campaign they’ve supported, either. A majority of the Markey stans phone- and text-banked for progressive Democratic presidential primary candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren throughout 2019 and the beginning of this year. Others are staunch supporters of the Sunrise Movement, a climate justice organization led by young people.
“It was kind of like a natural switch to supporting Ed Markey,” Niedzielski said. “Maybe our favorite candidate isn’t going to win the presidential primary, but you know what, the Senate’s also important. Let’s redirect that energy into still fighting for the causes we believe in.”
The central issue for most young Markey supporters is climate change, a crisis that progressives like Warren and Sanders focused on throughout the 2020 primary season. Markey co-authored the Green New Deal alongside progressive powerhouse Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, making him an appealing choice for enthusiastic climate justice advocates hungry for a new political campaign to support.
Just like the switch from Warren and Sanders to Markey, pop culture fandom operates in the same way. Fans of certain books, television shows, and music artists are normally fans of others as well, especially if they espouse similar themes or messages. And the transition from supporting one political campaign to another helps foster a sustainable progressive movement.
“If you ask these fans, they can usually point to something that their fandoms have in common that attracts them and that’s really what’s happening with the political stuff, too,” Stacey Lantagne, who studies online fandom at the University of Mississippi School of Law, told The Verge. “‘I like all these candidates because the thing that I’m really attracted to is climate change’ in the same way that you might move from Harry Potter to Sherlock because what you really like is a central character who is the person who has to solve all the riddles of the world.”
Markey’s campaign isn’t the first time fandom has found its way into politics. Last June, K-pop fans, some of the internet’s most prolific posters, scooped up hundreds of free tickets to a President Donald Trump reelection rally only to never show up as part of a coordinated effort to skew the projected attendance numbers. Shortly after the stans organized, the Trump campaign announced that it had received more than a million requests for tickets, but once the rally day arrived, only 6,200 people showed up at the venue, less than half of its 19,000-person capacity.
Just like in political campaigns, fandoms occasionally find themselves battling opposing groups and interests. Swifties might not be huge Kanye and Kim Kardashian West fans. Cardi B stans are constantly warring with Barbz, the name Nicki Minaj fans call themselves.
“As opposed to like Taylor Swift, we really emphasize that we shouldn’t be stanning or putting any politician on a pedestal, even if it’s someone as great as Ed Markey,” Evelyn Rubinchik, a Northeastern University student and reply guy told The Verge.
This ability to see Markey’s flaws is what Rubinchik says keeps the organized stan accounts from posting too negatively about Kennedy. Still, rogue stans, who are oftentimes not a part of a specific group of posters, have sent out toxic tweets about Kennedy. The Kennedy campaign has cited tweets ranging from childish trolls to more disturbing references to the JFK assassination, which some took as a death threat.
“We understand it is not anyone paid by the Markey campaign making these threats — but it is the direct result of the toxic online ecosystem your campaign has allowed (at best) and encouraged (at worst),” Kennedy’s campaign manager Nick Clemons wrote in a letter to the Markey campaign last week.
Justified or not, concerns about toxic online culture have done tangible damage to the Markey campaign. In her endorsement on August 20th, Speaker Pelosi cited online harassment as one of the motivating factors, saying “I wasn’t too happy with some of the assault that I saw made on the Kennedy family.”
The result has been an emphasis on staying positive — at least within officially organized channels. Within the Markey campaign’s official Slack, where supporters organize events and share campaign news, there’s a channel dedicated to “wholesome memes.” The channel description reads, “memes! as a reminder, we are running a positive campaign and we ORGANIZE, not agonize, so please keep your memes positive!”
Large stan accounts like the reply guys emphasize these same rules. “We stay really positive and ‘organize, not agonize.’ We will never explicitly post anything anti-Kennedy because even though we’re not affiliated with the campaign, we still represent the campaign,” Rubinchik said.
The K-pop fans were able to organize their movement to troll Trump just as the Markey stans have organized themselves online. They use platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok to broadcast their messages all while retweeting and engaging with other similar content in an effort to spread it more widely. When the content goes viral, more people see it, and maybe more people will donate to the campaign or hit the dialer at phone banks like the one hosted by Students For Markey on Thursday. The stans almost always reply to viral Markey tweets with links to phone banks or actions supporters can take to support the campaign.
“People are super dismissive of fandom for a lot of reasons, but you learn a lot of engagement skills in fandom,” Lantagne said. “Fanfiction authors and fan artists are excellent marketers. They learn engagement. They learn what appeals to people. They learn how to interact with people, how to build a following online, how to make a community. They could run every social media account on the books.”
After Tuesday, the Markey stans aren’t sure what will happen to their accounts. They could use them to platform their fight for climate justice, as many are members of their local Sunrise Movement chapters. Maybe they’ll continue posting throughout the Massachusetts general election. Or maybe they’ll all take a break and sleep, one reply guy said during Thursday night’s phone bank.
“Maybe it’ll just be a time for us to tweet our drafts if we have any,” Joshua Rush, a former Disney star and reply guy, said Thursday.