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Using Humor to Advance Political Discourse Online: An Interview with Sami Sage

Sami Sage is a graduate of Cornell University and the Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Betches Media. Started as a blog in 2011, the company has expanded into a popular website, a number of podcasts, three best-selling books, and several Instagram pages, including a main Instagram with over seven million followers. Sage co-hosts the Betches Sup and Diet Starts Tomorrow podcasts. She also runs the Betches’ Morning Announcement podcast, where she breaks down important news stories daily. She uses her own personal platform @sami to share a wide-range of content, including, but not limited to, insightful and informative political commentary.  

Alyssa Merritt: Your media company, Betches, just celebrated its ten-year anniversary. When you started Betches, did you have any idea it would grow into what it is today?

Sami Sage: I started Betches with two friends of mine in our college apartment during our senior year at Cornell. We definitely did not have any idea it would grow into what it is today. It started as a blog where we would have fun and satirize the culture around us. At the time, satire was really big and quite misogynistic; sites like Barstool, Total Frat Move, and Bro-Bible were at the forefront of that. We felt that there was nothing that catered to the type of women we felt we were. A lot of what was out there handled women with kid gloves and did not embrace what women are really like. So, we started writing as an outlet for ourselves to make sense of things, but then it went viral. We didn’t have a plan necessarily to take Betches to where we are now, but after the blog’s initial success we started to consider making it a longer term project and, potentially, a business. 

AM: While Betches is not solely a political platform, you are very politically outspoken on your personal Instagram. Do you feel your personal Instagram stands out from Betches because of this greater political emphasis or do you see it as an extension of the ideas and content shared by Betches?

SS: Betches started out very apolitical—we even had jokes like “a Betch doesn’t pay attention to the news.” But I’ve always been really into politics. We started Betches Sup, which is our news and politics vertical, in 2015. That was our first true foray into the news and our first content vertical that was not under the main Betches, which covers pop culture and lifestyle. For a while, I wasn’t using my personal Instagram as a content place, but, especially following the 2020 election and the insurrection, I have started to share more political content. I am personally incredibly passionate about politics and social issues. For me, it’s an extension of myself. I don’t have a content calendar or plan for my personal Instagram content; I just share what I feel is a reflection of me or what I want to call attention to. 

AM: What process do you use to decide what information to highlight on your morning announcements podcast?

SS: The morning announcements is a five-minute daily rundown of the most important headlines from the day before. It takes me about an hour to write and record every night, but the process is really an all-the-time process in the sense that I pay attention to Twitter and the news all day, and I usually have MSNBC on mute. Every day, I start a new note called ‘morning announcements’ with the date for the next day. That eventually becomes my script, but throughout the day it’s where I collect links, headlines, or key words to remind myself to look into a story that might be interesting. I’m not afraid to include too much, so I’ll write down anything that’s interesting or that hasn’t been getting enough attention. 

I try to cover the obvious things that everyone’s talking about and that need to be shared, but I also try to look for less covered stories. For some reason right now, one that’s sticking out to me is the Johnson & Johnson settlement about baby powder and how it has disproportionately affected women of color. It might not be headline news, but including more stories like that shows how the political system and the media can affect people’s lives, especially marginalized groups. I also try to think about it from the perspective of my listeners. Sometimes people will DM me and ask me to cover a certain story. I listen to them because if it’s something happening to a follower of mine then it is a real thing. I have a voice and can get those things out there, so I try to share as much as possible. 

AM: According to the Pew Research Center, about 70 percent of social media users rarely or never post about politics, but there seems to be a lot of potential for social media to continue changing the political landscape. As someone who regularly posts about and discusses politics on their platform, have you noticed a change in the amount of people who engage with your political posts or a general increase in the political posts that you see on social media?

SS: Instagram and TikTok are both being used so much more for political commentary and sharing. I love that because ten years ago you would never see something like that on social media. You would only see it on the news. At the time, platforms like that were meant to share your personal life, and I don’t know that people saw politics as personal before. The reason people now share more political information and are more responsive on these platforms is because they realize it is personal. Issues like the minimum wage, salaries, and the labor shortage are personal for many people, so they’re realizing there’s not as much of a divide between their lives and politics as they once thought. 

AM: Since people tend to consume and engage with news outlets in ways that reinforce their existing beliefs, do you see the relationship between social media and politics as something that is helpful or hurtful to political discourse and the spread of information? 

SS: As someone who uses social media to spread political information, I hate to say that I actually think it’s hurtful. For a long time, I’ve asked if social media is net good or net bad. For a while I thought it was definitely net good, but I’ve started to change my mind on that. People seem to be fed things they agree with. Before, that meant you watched Fox News or you watched CNN. Now, algorithms are literally radicalizing people. Facebook experimented with creating a fake profile for a conservative woman, and within a week she was deep into QAnon. I hate to say it, but I think social media is the reason that no one can talk to each other anymore. With proper regulation and proper capital incentives, maybe that wouldn’t be the case. With the way it’s structured now, I feel really hopeless about there being a chance for the country to unify when we’re being fed alternate realities. I don’t see how that can be turned around without serious regulation or real changes. Since we don’t get to choose whether social media exists or not, it’s up to us as consumers to not contribute to the problem in whatever ways we can and to call our senators. I personally plan to continue taking advantage of social media to spread things that are positive and informative.

AM: You interact with a largely liberal audience. Do you ever deal with trolls, people who actively argue with what you have to say, or people who try to spread misinformation? How do you deal with that?

SS: I subscribe to the “don’t feed the trolls” mentality. There is obviously a difference between a troll and someone who just disagrees with me or is giving criticism, but I’m not afraid to delete a dumb comment if it is clearly from a troll. I will never answer trolls and will block them immediately. I don’t engage with that sort of thing, but I will engage with someone I peripherally know who says, for example, that vaccines are bad. There is a line. 

AM: You mentioned that you let your beliefs and what you think is most important inform what you choose to post, but do you try to balance the type of content you share between your more political postings and the other topics you use your platform to discuss?

SS: I am not a full-time content creator, so people don’t expect me to post something every day. Most of my audience knows that my full-time job is Chief Creative Officer at Betches. If I weren’t working to run the company, I might have more time to post content. Because I’m both limited by time and productivity, I post whatever inspires me in the moment when I have the time. I try to balance what I am posting, but I’m not thinking about it in those terms. I focus on what I think my audience will respond to, sharing that, and seeing what the response is.

AM: You use a lot of humor in your posts. Is it a conscious choice to speak on issues in a more comedic way or is that naturally the tone you gravitate towards? 

SS: Humor is the lens that makes the world kind of okay for me. I’ve always leaned on my sense of humor or sarcasm to help me communicate, make sense of things, and help heavy topics that can be painful to talk about for some people. The way I cope is through humor and through seeing the ridiculousness in a lot of things, which naturally comes out in my tone. I don’t try to make jokes with a lot of my content, but with the morning announcements, for example, I will. Because of the way it is structured, I will try to include some classic punchlines in some of the stories, but a lot of the time, it is just me spouting out what comes to my mind as I record because I don’t fully script it. 

AM: It can be hard to find a balance between being active on social media and staying up-to-date with the news while prioritizing mental health. As someone who works in media, how do you balance that, and do you have any coping advice for our readers?

SS: I do not have it 100 percent figured out, but I do my best. The number one thing is going to therapy and working through your baseline issues. That is what enabled me to get out of my head and stop having intrusive thoughts about these things. Especially for college students, you might not think you need therapy, but you’ll be better off the sooner you start working through those things. Especially when it comes to politics, people don’t necessarily realize how much of their personal trauma can be affected.

When talking about marginalized communities, something like generational trauma can only really be dealt with in therapy or through real therapeutic means and nurturing. In the current political situation, coming from a community receiving a lot of hate is going to unearth a lot of pain. Baseline therapy is the best care you can take of yourself. After that, basic self-care, like turning off the phone if you are consumed by the news, is important. The world is not going to get better or worse if you turn off your phone. Focus on time away from your phone and time face-to-face with people you care about because that is what makes life worth it. We can be so isolated with our phones and the news, but face-to-face time with people and limiting media consumption is good recovery time that can remind you that you don’t have to be responsible for hearing all the world’s tragedies at every moment. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.