Omar Rivero stands cross-armed in his light-filled Los Angeles pool house and urges one of his employees to finish a meme about the “Republican Hypocrites of the Year” when the news breaks: The president has just signed a memo banning transgender people from the military.
“Oh, I hate Donald Trump!” Rivero exclaims after his girlfriend reads the breaking story aloud from a Twitter feed. The trim, 30-year-old Rivero, dressed casually in a V-neck tee, shorts and Adidas sneakers, shakes his head while skimming the presidential memo over a staffer's shoulder.
Rivero's employees, four similarly dressed-down guys — including one in a Britney Spears T-shirt — seethe that Trump made the move just as Hurricane Harvey barrels toward Texas. Pacing the tidy, sky-blue room lined with slim IKEA desks, Rivero decides they need a story fast.
He already has a headline. “Trump just signed a deplorable executive order under the cover of Hurricane Harvey,” he tells one of the writers, who types those words on his MacBook but suggests they avoid 'deplorable.' “Use 'disgusting' or something,” Rivero replies. He moves on to the excerpt that will show up in their Facebook link.
“With America distracted,” he dictates, pausing a moment to think, “the president quietly took action. Boom. Hurry up.”
Almost an hour later, writer Brian Cohen still isn't done, and Rivero jokes, “Get this man some chocolate! This man is useless without chocolate!” Cohen hits publish on the story — six paragraphs topped with a photo of the president smirking that he found by Googling “Trump sneaky” — to Rivero's website, Occupy Democrats. Then he posts it to the site's Facebook page, which boasts nearly 7 million followers, more than the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post.
A mob of comments, shares and clicks quickly flows in. “Freaking DISGRACEFUL!!!” one woman writes. “That sneaky, backstabbing, yellow bellied coward,” another comments. Hundreds of readers hit the red angry-face icon.
Rivero tracks the page views on one of the computers in the room, which is dominated by French doors offering a bucolic view of an orange tree, a Ping-Pong table and a pool. An analytics site shows 3,600 people reading the new piece. “Damn, this thing is looking beautiful,” a grinning Rivero says, prompting an “Oh, baby!” from one of the staffers. “It's on the stairway to Heaven.”
From this setting, the ideology-driven Ivy League grad, who was born in Mexico and grew up in Miami, runs a lucrative political news empire. With a keen sense of what resonates with his liberal audience and a knack for creating clickable content, he seems to have cracked the elusive Facebook code. Launched from his parents' suburban Miami apartment and helmed with his twin brother, Occupy Democrats is now the leading political page on the left, according to a recent analysis by BuzzFeed. It wields more influence, at least on Facebook, than virtually any other news source in America.
“This isn’t your grandmother’s journalism. It is the Wild West of journalism.” —Occupy Democrats co-founder Rafael Rivero
The company is an undisputed leader in a new industry of “hyper-partisan” sites that churn out aggregated, unabashedly partisan news. The sites live and die on Facebook; free from the constraints of objectivity and, in some cases, facts, they're able to play to their audiences' emotions.
PolitiFact has repeatedly taken Occupy Democrats to task for distorting stories, and some political scientists argue partisan Facebook groups create echo chambers that sow division in an already dangerously split America.
“Now you have different facts and different impressions of what's actually going on out there, and that often leads to a demonization of the other side,” says Alexander George Theodoridis, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Merced. “It's very hard to imagine compromising with somebody you view as a demon.”
But Rivero argues that Occupy Democrats, which he runs with his twin, Rafael, simply arms progressives in the information war that conservatives started with the launch of Fox News. To the two brothers, who typically avoid the spotlight but gave L.A. Weekly a behind-the-scenes look at their operation, the outlet is a powerful way to advance the strongly held beliefs shaped by their own American-dream story.
“This isn't your grandmother's journalism,” Rafael Rivero says. “It is the Wild West of journalism — a new form of communication that's reshaping the way Americans consume information and how they feel about it. And there are a few kingdoms, of which ours is just one.”
The beginning of the 1994 school year was only weeks away, and, as Nina Rivero puts it, the family couldn't afford to buy even a pencil. Her 7-year-old twins, Omar and Rafael — identical more in appearance than personality, and consistently at the top of their class in Puebla, Mexico — had only their outgrown brown school shoes. Months of play had left them scuffed and worn through with holes.
The twins were the youngest in Javier and Nina Rivero's brood of seven, and the couple had lately been struggling to keep the large family afloat. First the peso was devalued; then Javier's safety-equipment business floundered. As the summer of '94 wore on, the food in the refrigerator dwindled — until the day there was almost nothing left. Nina, a Jewish North Miami Beach native who had followed her love of travel to college in Mexico and stayed put after meeting the smart, serious-looking Javier, had spent weeks agonizing over what to do. Now she knew.
“I made the decision that day,” recalls Nina, a warm and gregarious woman with a big laugh. “I said to my husband: 'We've gotta go.'”
She went to the local newspaper and took out an ad listing everything in their house for sale. After strangers poked through their cupboards and paid cash to carry away their belongings, she bought her boys new shoes. A few weeks later, the family was in Florida.
The abrupt move to America would shape the young brothers' lives — and, eventually, the ideology they espouse through Occupy Democrats. After arriving with nearly nothing and relying for a few years on government assistance, the Rivero family carved out working-class stability. The twins worked their way to degrees from two of the best universities in the nation. And they developed a fierce belief in keeping similar opportunities open wide for the next generation of dreamers.
“At some point, they recognized that they were given this opportunity to be in this country,” their mother says, “and I think that they set out to take advantage of it. They weren't going to let it just go by the wayside.”
Though Nina is American and, by extension, her children were born U.S. citizens, the first couple of years after they returned to Florida were tough. Although Javier found work assembling furniture, money was tight. Nina had always been a devoted stay-at-home mom, but she began working at her brother-in-law's law firm, returning to an apartment she alternately describes as a three-ring circus and a madhouse.
“I mean, this was not seven beautiful kids lined up Sound of Music–style for Mom,” she quips.
Yet second-graders Omar and Rafael quickly adjusted. Despite arriving at elementary school speaking only Spanish, both excelled: Rafael, who went by Rafa, earned the school's first perfect score on a state writing assessment, and both twins were placed in the gifted program.
Their physical resemblance was so strong that when they were born, their parents placed color-coded bracelets on their wrists to tell them apart. But their interests and personalities couldn't have been more different. Omar was funny and lighthearted, an agile soccer player who dreamed of going pro. Rafa was serious and studious; he kept a handwritten budget taped to the wall of the bedroom he and Omar shared with their two older brothers. “My brother and I, we're the same person,” Omar says, “but we're very different at the same time.”
In high school they traveled in different crowds. Rafa stood out in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program. “He thought about the long-term ramifications,” one of his teachers, Amy Scott, recalls. “That set him apart from a lot of bright kids.”
What Rafa was thinking a lot about, even back then, was policy and its consequences. In a 2005 essay published in the school's literary journal, Elysium, he wrote of feeling complicit in the suffering of others, from “children forced into the sex trade in East Asia to displaced cotton growers in Chad.” He continued, “I only wish that all of our leaders and politicians would share the sense of responsibility that I feel.”
After high school, Rafael headed to Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College. Omar landed a soccer scholarship at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. But a year in, for reasons no one could quite figure out, playing soccer became so painful Omar had to stop. After games, his knees felt as if they were being pulled apart.
His attention, finally, turned toward academics. In the fall of 2006, Omar entered Cornell University as a sophomore, majoring in industrial and labor relations, and developed an interest in politics that rivaled his twin's.
At the time, Rafael's beliefs had an Ayn Rand–inspired libertarian bent. He was a member of the College Republicans at Swarthmore and canvassed for Ron Paul in the winter of 2007. That experience drastically changed his ideology. “I met a lot of bigoted people along the way, and as a Mexican immigrant, I didn't feel comfortable,” Rafael says. “That was part of my awakening, I would say, away from conservative politics.”
Both brothers drifted left. When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, they joined his campaign. Omar even saw a little of his own story in Obama's: the mixed-race identity, the initial lack of focus on academics, the early commitment to public service. He dreamed of getting into politics himself. As Rafael began to work for a nonprofit aimed at encouraging Latinos to vote, Omar started grad school at ESCP Europe, a top business school. His mom took out a loan to help pay for it.
Omar believed investment banking could help buoy his working-class family, so he studied business and, in 2011, took an internship at a Colombian bank. But he soon became disillusioned. The company was buying land from indigenous people and selling it to foreign mining companies. Omar believed they were “ripping off indigenous communities and polluting the planet for profit.” Offered a full-time job, he declined.
He returned to Miami and moved into his parents' apartment, where he spent more and more time on Facebook. But he was hardly wallowing in self-doubt. “It's not like you're worried about him because he's going into depression because he doesn't know what he was doing,” Nina Rivero says. “No, no, no, no. His life went on.”
Still, this was not the future Omar's family had imagined for him. When he first finished grad school, one of his sisters had taken him shopping for a crisp new suit. Now, with Nina struggling to pay the loan she'd taken out, relatives were growing dismayed. They printed out job applications and brought them to the apartment.
One of them, Omar was a little stung to see, was for McDonald's.
Inside a sleek South Beach vacation rental, Omar took a break from scrubbing a grimy bathroom and turned to the laptop he'd opened on the counter. He clicked on Facebook and signed into Occupy Democrats, where he began typing an impassioned post.
It was the fall of 2012, and Omar was a couple of weeks into creating the page, which he updated between pocketing $100 for each tourist-trashed unit he tidied up. His family thought he'd lost his mind: an Ivy League grad with a first-rate master's degree and six figures in student loan debt, cleaning toilets and messing around on Facebook all day.
Yet Omar was convinced he was onto something. In October 2012, he listed the page's first milestone: 1,000 likes. “INCREDIBLE!” his update read. “In less than a month, our MOVEMENT has grown this rapidly thanks to you guys. … Who knows how big this can grow?”
At the time, Facebook was better known as a service for sharing photos and planning events than for providing political information. But the social media giant began a major drive to become a home for news just as Omar created Occupy Democrats. The page soon grew exponentially, even as Omar's mysterious illness made typing as prohibitively painful as soccer and critics lined up to target the increasingly powerful page.
“They are just so well engineered for Facebook and in tune with it that they perform extremely well there,” says Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed's media editor and the author of its analysis of hyper-partisan sites. “On Facebook alone, Occupy Democrats is an absolute monster.”
The idea for the page stemmed from a conversation Omar and Rafael had about the Occupy Wall Street movement. The brothers had joined the sprawling protest at New York City's Zuccotti Park in September 2011 but agreed the movement could effect real political change only by taking over the Democratic Party. Omar had built a following in college by posting political diatribes on his personal Facebook page, and he decided the social media site could serve as a platform for a grassroots push to meld Occupy Wall Street and the Democratic Party — hence, Occupy Democrats.
“I knew that I could use Facebook well,” he says, “and I knew that I had a voice.” He registered the page later that same month and invited his 3,000 or so friends to like it. About 400 did. The first post, a YouTube video of Obama discussing the “deplorable” Citizens United decision, received a few likes, enough for Omar to feel “a real rush of power.”
Omar hadn't initially pictured Occupy Democrats producing its own news; his plan was to link to articles from other sources and add commentary. But when he searched for stories about Obama and the Affordable Care Act, he couldn't find any he thought were positive enough. The right got its message out through Fox News, but the left had nothing. Occupy Democrats would level the playing field, he decided, and “give Democrats and progressives the ammunition to fight back against conservative myths, mirrors and distortions.”
Many Occupy Democrats posts were authored by Omar, but as the site grew, his health declined. The more he posted, the more pain he felt. The same was true for Rafael. After the two hunted for a diagnosis, doctors discovered they have a rare mutation of an amino acid–processing gene referred to as MTHFR, which causes neuropathy. Omar says the condition is incurable, degenerative and aggravated by repetitive motion.
But he continued to work on the page and soon drew in his twin. Rafael had built websites, including a Shakira fan page, in high school, and he soon discovered another talent: producing simple but attention-grabbing memes, typically with a bright yellow font on a black background. With Omar's knack for headlines and Rafael's visuals, the two began turning a profit from third-party ads by the summer of 2014.
In August 2014, the national fact-checking site PolitiFact took Occupy Democrats to task for a meme that claimed Republican Sen. Ted Cruz was “bribed by the Kochs to introduce a bill that would gift or sell them and their allies America's national forests, parks and other public lands and open them for mining, drilling, fracking and lodging.” That one earned a “Pants on Fire” rating from PolitiFact, which wrote, “Campaign contributions aren't bribes, and suspicions aren't facts,” calling the claim “unsupported and ridiculous.”
That kind of mainstream critique didn't halt Occupy Democrats' momentum. By 2015, both Riveros had turned the site into a full-time job. The brothers doubled and then tripled their following. Their timing, once again, couldn't have been better.
“By the time the election rolled around in 2016,” Silverman says, “they were really well established to just take off.”
It's almost 5 p.m. in L.A. on a Friday, but in the nonstop carnival of chaos that is a Donald Trump presidency, it's never too late for breaking news. Inside the Occupy Democrats pool house–turned-newsroom, managing editor Colin Taylor has just finished blaring a Super Deluxe song stitched together from memorable Alex Jones rants — “Obama and Hillary both smell like sulfur”— and spun with a Bon Iver–esque folk sound. Staffers are scrolling through a seemingly endless stream of Facebook and Twitter feeds. Omar is trying to figure out how to ban a comments-section troll.
And then: “Ho-ly shit,” says one of the writers, staring down at his laptop. “Trump just pardoned Arpaio.”
The pool house erupts. The energy feels like any newsroom on deadline with a breaking story, but here it's tinged with a palpable indignation. “Ahhhhh!” Omar exclaims, shaking his fist at the ceiling and declaring the former Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff “America's biggest racist.” A chorus of “wow” and “damn” fills the room. Taylor queues up an EDM remix of “Freedom's Call,” the jingoistic ditty that a troupe of preteen girls famously performed at a Trump rally. Omar tells him to cut it, and he does, but he goes on whistling the “USA, USA” bit as he types madly at his keyboard.
A short eight minutes later, Taylor frantically waves the boss over to rattle off a title and Facebook excerpt for the story. “Omar, come on, let's get it out. C'mon, c'mon, c'mon!” he says.
After Trump's unexpected victory last fall, the Riveros were crushed — but Occupy Democrats had a new raison d'être. With outrage against the historically unpopular leader lighting the fuse, the already booming site rocketed to new heights. And as profits soared, fights erupted over the payouts.
Last year, the owners of another page sued the Riveros in federal court in Illinois, claiming they were responsible for helping expand the reach of Occupy Democrats but were cut out of a profit-sharing deal in late 2016. Matthew Hanson and Daniel Gouldman, the Illinois men who run the liberal Facebook page Addicting Info, alleged they were promised 40 percent of the site's profits, which they said were more than $40,000 a month by 2015. The Riveros have denied those allegations, and the parties reached a confidential settlement in January 2017.
The twins won't talk money but they appear to be thriving. BuzzFeed's Silverman estimates they could be making six figures in ad revenue every month. Omar was able to move into a million-dollar house in Los Angeles and hire five full-time writers, who he says are paid generously.
The move West wasn't made solely for business reasons. In early 2016, the Occupy Democrats page received a message from Clancy McLain, who was campaigning for Bernie Sanders. Omar noticed they had friends in common, and the two began messaging back and forth on Facebook and then talking on the phone. “It was political love,” McLain says. Looking at pictures of the L.A.-based writer and model with hazel eyes and waves of long red hair, Omar worried he was being catfished. The two have now been dating for a little more than a year and live together, but he still has her name saved in his phone as “Catfish Clancy.”
Even before Trump's election, experts and journalists wrestled with what the success of outwardly biased sites like the Riveros' means for American democracy. Last summer, The New York Times Magazine called hyper-partisan Facebook pages “2016's most disruptive, and least understood, force in media.”
But some say that what the Riveros are doing is really a throwback to an earlier era of American journalism, before newspaper owners decided they could make more money by sticking to the middle ground.
“A hundred years ago, if you looked across the newspaper landscape, you would have found newspapers named after political parties,” says Al Tompkins, senior faculty for broadcast and online at the Poynter Institute. “The whole idea of being nonpartisan was kind of radical 100 years ago.”
Since Trump was elected, the debate has reached a fever pitch. BuzzFeed and other outlets have chronicled how completely false sites — many based in Russia and other Eastern European countries — drew millions of views on Facebook and might have helped propel Trump to the White House.
Occupy Democrats, for its part, has been called “partisan and unreliable” by Snopes, and four of its posts were rated as “Pants on Fire” by PolitiFact — meaning fact-checkers determined the posts made “ridiculous” claims. BuzzFeed's analysis, meanwhile, concluded about 20 percent of the group's posts were false or misleading.
But the Riveros insist they would never set out to deceive their audience, adding they always cite sources. They're partisan, they say, but they don't hide it.
“We put out over 30 pieces of content a day, and over 99 percent of our content is 100 percent factual,” Omar says. “But like every other news organization, we make mistakes. All in all, I'd say that our 7 million followers and our engagement level can attest to the fact that we're the most trusted political Facebook page. The people have spoken.”
Omar stands in the Pottery Barn–style kitchen of his Los Angeles home, which is packed with the vegan food McLain has gotten him hooked on lately. He's talking about the future of Occupy Democrats: the video studio he plans to build in what is now the master bedroom, the meetings he's scheduling with Democratic Party brass. Then he makes a bold pronouncement.
“If Hillary would have given me $20 million, we wouldn't have President Trump,” he declares. “That's a guarantee.”
Now that Occupy Democrats has risen to the top of the Facebook political pages, Omar wants to use the network to wield more influence. As much as he likes coming up with headlines for quick-hitter stories, he wants to pivot to working directly with the party to put more Democrats in office. He says that's actually been his goal all along.
From Omar and Rafael's perspective, it's too late for the concerns about aggressive partisan news and the collapse of the middle ground. They argue the left is just playing defense in a game started by the right.
“At some point in American politics, the Rubicon was crossed, and I think that was probably when Roger Ailes launched Fox News,” Rafael says. “And to put that genie back in the bottle so we all go back to Walter Cronkite–style objective journalism where everyone watches the same news program, that era is over, and for the left to pretend that it's not would be ceding ground.”
The brothers say their health is improving, which Omar attributes to his vegan diet and finally getting rid of his cellphone. They dream of interviewing political figures, making videos comparing Democratic candidates with their Republican counterparts and electing candidates who can take on Trump.
“I just believe that the government should be a strong watchdog to make sure that the excesses of capitalism don't erode the middle class, hurt consumers or destroy the environment for future generations,” Omar says.
Away from the fervor of breaking news, he's confident but measured while talking politics, choosing his words thoughtfully. But he also believes that “sometimes with these Republicans, you can't be afraid to get dirty and wrestle with the pigs.”
He tried to get hands-on last year. In the final weeks before the election, Omar says, he offered his assistance to the Clinton campaign. But he was ignored until the very end, when they gave him a small amount of funding to promote “Pantsuits for Hillary Clinton” videos. Meanwhile, according to a Bloomberg report, the Trump campaign was spending millions of dollars on Facebook “dark posts” — so named because they aren't public. One example was a cartoon of Clinton accompanied by text saying she “thinks African-Americans are super predators,” which targeted certain African-American voters. The goal? To persuade them not to go to the polls.
“They're mind-warping people,” Omar says, recounting the story. “And here comes Hillary, and they're like, 'OK, pantsuits.'”
The Democrats, in other words, were totally outmaneuvered on Facebook. If the Riveros can help it, that will never happen again.
“This is the future of politics,” Omar says.