The NUMTOTs have endorsed Bernie Sanders. Here’s why that matters

Senator Bernie Sanders, and a train. Image: Getty.

On 19 January, the New York Times editorial board made history when it endorsed two candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, for president, concluding, “May the best woman win.”

This came on the heels on another key endorsement, one that got far less media coverage. On 15 January, New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens, a private Facebook meme group, endorsed U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Within hours, Bernie personally thanked the group’s nearly 180,000 “NUMTOTs,” as they affectionately call themselves.

Why would a leading contender for the Democratic nomination so eagerly patronize a niche group on a social media site?

In 2020, it’s simply smart politics – and a sign of how campaigning and political messaging strategies are rapidly changing. Bernie’s post on the Facebook group’s page now has over 16,000 reactions and nearly 3,000 comments.

A meme posted on NUMTOT highlights why many of issues important to group members are compatible with Sanders’ platform. Image: New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens/

As experts on political memes, we’re well aware of the ways memes and meme groups can influence politics on the sly.

Though they might seem like humorous, pithy or even nonsensical digital artifacts, memes, as our research has shown, wield the power to unite, divide, persuade and provoke voters. They’ve become an increasingly important – even indispensable – communication tool in politics, helping ordinary voters shape political debates and hone arguments from their phones.

It’s a radical departure from just a decade ago, when donors and legacy media outlets largely set the tone, defined the parameters and dictated the topics of debate.

With social media now a battleground for political debate, memes have become a key way for regular supporters of a candidate or party to unite around certain issues, generate talking points and crystallise policy platforms – regardless of what The New York Times, Fox News or The Washington Post have to say about it.

New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens is a large, diverse meme group on Facebook. Created in 2017, the page attracts those who share an interest in urban planning, housing justice, transportation infrastructure and climate change.

Public transit and climate are two issues of primary importance to the group’s members. Image: New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens/

On Facebook, thousands of NUMTOTs engage in robust democratic debate; it just so happens that much of this debate often comes in the form of Pokemon or Winnie the Pooh memes. In the past few days, NUMTOTs have debated renters’ rights, fair housing policies, flood management for densely populated areas, public transit, income inequality and shelters for LGBTQ+ youth.

But with the 2020 presidential race well underway, the group has also been discussing the candidates and their policies.

The page has an outsized ability – on Facebook, at least – to communicate members’ political positions. Endorsing Bernie could prove particularly effective for mobilizing young voters, since 90 per cent of NUMTOT’s members are under 34 years old.

A meme highlights differences in Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s political styles to explain the group’s endorsement of Sanders. Image: New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens/

One NUMTOT member pointed out recently that this group boasts the size – and, more importantly, people power – of a small city.

Research has already demonstrated how memes shaped the 2016 election. As we note in our book, memes from far-right Trump supporters effectively framed media conversations about the election, with ethno-nationalist talking points taking center stage in traditional media outlets. That may not have been the Trump campaign’s plan, but there’s no doubt that these memes funneled attention in Trump’s direction.

For his part, Trump – perhaps intuitively understanding their power – retweeted some of these viral memes, even though the meme’s creators had little or no connection to his official campaign.

Four years later, the politics of memes have evolved. NUMTOT’s endorsement actually represents an organised political decision that, in turn, has been acknowledged and celebrated by a candidate.

Not only can memes seed talking points to campaigns, but they also give candidates a window into the issues that are important to subsets of voters. Memes have become a way for political groups to coordinate and act collectively, and guerrilla imagery has become a key component of electioneering.

May the best memers win.

Heather Woods, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Technology, Kansas State University and Leslie Hahner, Associate Professor of Communication, Baylor University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.

Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.