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Campus conservative group Turning Point USA and its founder, Fox News darling Charlie Kirk, had a problem.
It was late December and their big annual conference, the Student Action Summit, had just kicked off in Florida, complete with internal app meant to coordinate conference activities.
But almost immediately the app was used for another purpose: sending rude jokes about Kirk.
Instead of using the app to talk Trump and build activist networks, some of the high school and college students attending the conference started sharing memes, including photoshopped pictures of Kirk’s face distorted for comical effect, like this one:
“They were posting memes of his face where it was all shrunken,” said Grace Johnson, a college student at Sam Houston State University who went to the conference.
Conference organizers appeared to move quickly to contain the behavior. One high school student who attended the conference told The Daily Beast that she had shared a picture of Kirk as “just a meme,” only to find herself kicked off the Turning Point app.
In a statement, a Turning Point spokesperson said the app was shut down after another incident, in which a wave of anti-Semitic trolls who weren’t attending the conference started posting on the app. The spokesperson insisted that no one was banned for posting an edited picture of Kirk’s face.
“TPUSA has a strict, zero-tolerance policy in these instances and reserves the right to remove any individual from the platform if they participate in hate speech or aggressive behavior of any kind,” the statement reads. “Attendees and their parents deserve this level of attention and care and TPUSA is committed to providing it.”
But Turning Point’s troubles go further than a couple Photoshopped pictures.
After the conference, a group of dissatisfied young Trump supporters launched “Heal Our Voice,” a group of Turning Point dissidents critical of Kirk’s handling of the group.
Kevin Martin, the young conservative activist who started the competing group, said he and other students created the organization as a place to talk about “where we can talk about the way we’re getting treated.”
Heal Our Voice’s website is filled with a number of anonymous gripes, ranging from Kirk’s celebrity status on the right to an alleged hard-partying atmosphere at Turning Point conferences. In a statement, Turning Point says underage drinking is grounds for attendees to be expelled from conferences.
Johnson told The Daily Beast that she joined Heal Our Voice in part because of a feeling that some political views are off-limits at Turning Point events.
“Charlie Kirk can be a little bit of a snowflake — or a lot a bit of a snowflake,” she said.
This isn’t Turning Point’s first brush with controversy on the right. Attendees at previous conferences have also spoken out about sexual harassment and assault at the events. The group has also clashed with other college conservative groups, and is still dogged by a disastrous diaper protest organized by some of its members.
Meanwhile, pro-Trump activists blamed Kirk in part after rapper Kanye West distanced himself from the group amid a merchandise spat with a related group, “Blexit.”
Both “Heal Our Voice” and the Kirk memes suggest cracks in Turning Point’s main appeal to older donors: that Kirk and his group can fire up young Republicans and up the GOP’s gap in the youth vote. Instead, they’re left trying to stomp out fires created by attendees at the group’s own conferences.