By Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune
“Gen Z influencers, quietly recruited by a company with deep GOP ties, rally to impeached Ken Paxton’s aid” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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In late June, about a dozen conservative Gen Z influencers converged on Fort Worth for a few days of right-wing networking. They hit local night spots, posed for group photos and met a far-right Texas billionaire and Donald Trump’s former campaign chair.
And then they took to social media to rally their many followers behind a new, controversial film about human trafficking before turning their support to impeached Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
The event was sponsored by a fledgling company, Influenceable LLC, that recruits young, conservative social media figures to promote political campaigns and films without disclosing their business relationship. On its website, the company touts itself as the “world’s largest network of digital activists” and offers clients the power to “cultivate a community of influencers to leverage their credibility” with audiences.
Photos from the event show that Influenceable has powerful allies. Among the speakers were Brad Parscale, who recently moved to Texas after years running the Trump campaign’s digital strategy, and Tim Dunn, the West Texas oil tycoon who has given tens of millions of dollars to ultraconservative movements and candidates in Texas — including Paxton.
Now Influenceable appears to be recruiting young conservatives to parrot claims that the attorney general is the victim of a political witch hunt and, more recently, to promote a series of videos alleging that the Texas Legislature is secretly controlled by Democrats intent on destroying Paxton and other conservatives.
The company’s emergence comes amid Republican initiatives to connect with young Americans who tend to be more supportive of liberal policies.
And while legal experts said Influenceable’s methods don’t appear to run afoul of campaign finance and political advertising rules, the company has already irked some Republicans who say its approaches are deceptive and harmful to democracy. State Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, said he may propose new laws to strengthen disclosure requirements because of companies like Influenceable, saying they create “manufactured outrage” and further polarize the country.
“It disgusts me,” Oliverson said in an interview. “It calls into question the value and the validity of their entire message as an influencer. … I think they should all be investigated. I think the company should be investigated, and I think all of these influencers should be outed.”
Dunn, Parscale and Influenceable representatives did not respond to repeated interview requests.
Ties to an “anti-woke” company
Influenceable is closely linked to another right-wing organization, Today Is America Inc., a self-described “anti-woke” social media company that was founded in 2019 by North Carolina brothers Camron and Liam Rafizadeh. The company quickly rose to prominence on platforms such as Instagram, where it continues to deluge its quarter-million followers with anti-LGBTQ+ memes and pro-Trump talking points.
According to LinkedIn, Camron Rafizadeh is Influenceable’s CEO, Liam Rafizadeh is a co-founder and another high-ranking Today Is America employee, Tim Korshunov, leads development.
Liam Rafizadeh also ran the well-known Republican Hype House account on TikTok, which had 1.2 million followers before it was taken down when the platform targeted misinformation ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
The Rafizadeh brothers also attracted the attention of GOP operatives: Business filings for Today Is America LLC, one of a few companies associated with the Today Is America brand, list unsuccessful North Carolina congressional candidate Bo Hines as its CEO. Its chief financial officer is Jason Boles, who was the campaign treasurer for U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., before he joined the campaign of famed fabulist U.S. Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y. Boles is also the leader of Heal the Divide, a political action committee backing the presidential campaign of anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Influenceable was first registered in August 2022 in the infamous Corporation Trust Center, a one-story building in Wilmington, Delaware, that some 300,000 corporations — including Google, Apple and Walmart — have used as a registration address to take advantage of the so-called “Delaware loophole” that allows them to avoid taxes and many public disclosures.
Influenceable’s website touts a partnership with Campaign Nucleus, a company that Parscale began developing seven years ago. Parscale’s digital prowess is legendary: The San Antonio native spent decades working in marketing before leading the 2016 Trump campaign’s digital strategy — his first foray into politics — and playing a key role in Trump’s unexpected ascendancy to the Oval Office. He served as Trump’s campaign manager from February 2018 until July 2020, when he was demoted. Parscale left the campaign a few months later after his wife made, then retracted, domestic violence accusations.
Campaign Nucleus promotes itself as an all-in-one digital “ecosystem” that cuts out third-party platforms and protects conservatives from “cancel culture.”
“Stop wasting time using big tech platforms to reach audiences,” Campaign Nucleus’ website says. “Talk to people directly.”
As heat waves strained the Texas power grid last year, Campaign Nucleus reportedly pushed anti-renewable-energy talking points favored by oil and gas companies, and Trump’s campaign has also reportedly used Campaign Nucleus. Earlier this year, Parscale appears to have moved from Florida to Midland, home to a significant portion of the state’s energy industry as well as Dunn, an oil executive who has spent tens of millions of dollars to promote his far-right, anti-LGBTQ+ and religious views.
Dunn, Parscale and Dunn’s son David, a Christian music artist, spoke at the Fort Worth event, according to Instagram photos posted by Korshunov that were deleted after The Texas Tribune reached out to Influenceable and Dunn for comment.
“Are you Influenceable?” Korshunov wrote in the caption.
Well-known attendees chimed in: “I’m influenced,” commented CJ Pearson, a conservative Gen Z activist with more than 440,000 followers on the X platform, formerly known as Twitter, who was at the Fort Worth event.
“BIG Influenceable guy,” responded Xaviaer DuRousseau, who also attended the event and works with Pearson at PragerU, an activist group that pushes “alternative” educational materials aimed at young conservatives.
PragerU — which was recently allowed to provide curriculum to Florida public schools despite being unaccredited — did not respond to requests for comment about its relationship with Influenceable or requests to make DuRousseau or Pearson available for interviews.
Promoting movies, coming to Paxton’s defense
In the weeks after the Fort Worth event, a pattern emerged on many attendees’ social media profiles: In posts to Instagram Reels, TikTok or X, they warned their hundreds of thousands of collective followers about “an issue” that is “rarely talked about” or is “being swept under the rug” — human trafficking.
They frequently listed misleading statistics about the annual rate of abducted or missing children, sometimes inserting their own conspiracy theories about “globalists” and “Hollywood elites” running trafficking rings aided by Democratic immigration policies.
And then they’d pivot to their calls to action, telling followers they could save innocent kids and fight evil liberals by simply going to see a new movie, “Sound of Freedom,” and urging others to do the same.
The movie tells the story of Operation Underground Railroad and its founder, Tim Ballard, who has for years been condemned by anti-trafficking groups for his flirtation with QAnon conspiracy theories and for his group’s methods, which experts say endanger children and interfere with the work of local child protection agencies.
The film’s star, Jim Caviezel, is also a leading QAnon figure who has said he believes that global elites derive their power from adrenaline extracted from children as they are raped or tortured — an extreme QAnon theory that borrows heavily from Nazi and other antisemitic propaganda.
Since leaving the Fort Worth event, Parscale and nine other attendees posted about “Sound of Freedom” at least 50 times, often using the same talking points, promotional hashtags and studio-quality movie clips. As criticism of the movie poured in, many of them alleged that the pushback was part of a sinister and coordinated attack by Democrats and the media. Jeffrey Epstein’s name was sometimes invoked.
“Sound of Freedom exposes the dark realities of human trafficking that are largely ignored by legacy media, and perpetuated by left-wing open border policy,” wrote Blake Kresses, a Fort Worth-based podcaster who previously worked for Jeff Younger, an anti-transgender activist whose unsuccessful 2022 Texas House campaign was financed by one of Dunn’s groups.
“Liberals, why are you so mad that people are trying to bring awareness to human trafficking? Is there something going on there?” asked Vince Dao, a conservative influencer with 196,000 Instagram followers. “Everyone watching this: Be sure to go see ‘Sound of Freedom’ to send them a message.”
The film’s producer, Angel Studios, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about its relationship with Influenceable. Neither Kresses, Dao or others responded to Instagram messages, texts or phone calls.
Some of the attendees have since begun posting about a new anti-vaccination film, “Remedy,” that prominently features Kennedy Jr., whose presidential bid has been bankrolled by a super PAC run by Boles, the Today Is America CFO.
The influencers have also been vocal about Paxton, parroting anti-impeachment talking points favored by his biggest donors — including Defend Texas Liberty PAC, which gave $18,000 to a similarly named company, Influencable LLC, shortly before the Texas House’s investigation into Paxton was made public.
In the 48 hours before the Texas House voted to impeach Paxton on May 27, at least six of the Fort Worth event attendees made strikingly similar posts in which they accused House Speaker Dade Phelan of being an alcoholic, claimed Republicans in Name Only — “RINOs” — were attacking Paxton for his conservative values, and used a handful of unique hashtags such as #TXKangarooCourt and #TexasCorruption to rail against the House investigation.
Other major social media figures who were not at the Fort Worth event, but are pictured on Influenceable’s website, made similar posts supporting Paxton and condemning House leaders.
More recently, Influenceable appears to be recruiting social media figures to share posts about a new film that claims the Texas Legislature is secretly controlled by Democrats intent on destroying Paxton, a claim that has for years been pushed by Dunn-backed groups.
Screenshots of one of the recruitment pitches, which were published recently by the conservative website Current Revolt, offer influencers $50 for sharing one post about the film. Also listed were links to a payment website and to a tweet by Michael Quinn Sullivan, the longtime leader of Texas Scorecard, a far-right website that’s received millions of dollars from Dunn.
Defend Texas Liberty PAC is also primarily funded by Dunn and another West Texas oil billionaire, Farris Wilks. And the social media manager for Pale Horse Strategies — a consulting firm for Dunn-backed political campaigns — also attended the Fort Worth event.
Defend Texas Liberty and Texas Scorecard have for years been among Paxton’s biggest donors, defenders and cheerleaders. Texas Scorecard did not respond to interview requests. The leader of Defend Texas Liberty PAC declined requests for comment.
In other screenshots published by Current Revolt, the company offered $50 to influencers to share a specific post from Paxton’s personal X account by July 26. The recruitment text includes the name and number for Influencable’s head of recruitment operations and links to a payment portal that’s run by a company that Influenceable’s website lists as a partner.
On July 26, DuRousseau shared the Paxton post to his 144,000 followers, adding that “there are few patriots in leadership like Ken Paxton.”
Dao also shared the post: “RINOs in Texas are still trying to impeach Ken Paxton,” he wrote. “STOP THE WITCH HUNT!”
The Texas Tribune reviewed four of the leading influencers’ profiles on X and Instagram dating to January 2021 and found that most rarely — if ever — posted about Texas politics or Paxton prior to May. Pearson led the Teens for Ted (Cruz) group in 2015. Other than occasional posts about the border or gerrymandering, he does not appear to have frequently engaged with Texas politics. Dao has posted a few times about the border, while DuRousseau’s profile has primarily focused on race issues and anti-Black Lives Matter posts.
Kresses, who lives in Texas and served on Younger’s campaign, has been more vocal about state-level politics, telling his 14,000 Instagram followers to vote for Paxton and unsuccessful Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake in 2022, and urging them to vote no on a Michigan ballot measure to expand voting access — a post that he disclosed was a paid political advertisement.
“Getting paid by God-knows-who”
Influenceable’s tactics have been condemned by figures from across the conservative political spectrum.
Well-known white supremacist Nick Fuentes has repeatedly railed against the company, accusing it of working with Jewish political figures to paint him as an informant to federal law enforcement. Fuentes has also taken issue with the lack of disclosure by social media figures about their ties to the company.
“Why are they so afraid of people finding out about Influenceable?” Fuentes said during a February podcast. “Is it because people aren’t supposed to know that influencers are getting paid by God-knows-who to literally follow instructions like animals?”
The Federal Trade Commission says social media influencers should “make it obvious” when they have a “material connection” — including any “financial, employment, personal or family” relationship — with a brand.
But campaign law experts say there is little that state or federal regulators can do to force more disclosures when it comes to political messaging.
Ian Vandewalker, an expert on the influence of money in politics and elections at the Brennan Center, said federal campaign regulations have not been seriously updated since the early 2000s. He said outdated rules, coupled with recent court rulings, have allowed dark-money groups and popular social media figures to have outsized — and often undisclosed — sway over political discourse.
“The laws around disclosure of campaign spending assumed a traditional model, like paying somebody to print your ad in the newspaper or paying a TV station to play your ad on the air,” he said. “Paying an influencer to talk about a candidate doesn’t fit into those traditional definitions, and so it’s slipping through the cracks.”
In Texas, there are some restrictions on out-of-state donations and on when donors can give to certain politicians, campaigns and “specific-purpose committees.” The state also requires disclosures of “express advocacy” political advertising, which the Texas Ethics Commission says is undefined by law but includes “any time a candidate, a candidate’s agent, or a political action committee authorizes political advertising.”
Groups and individuals who are not directly connected to candidates or campaigns are also required to make disclosures if they are clearly advocating for the election or defeat of a candidate or for the passage or defeat of a measure.
But the state’s rules otherwise “allow dark money to run amok and do whatever it wants,” said Roger Borgelt, an Austin lawyer who specializes in campaign finance and election law.
“If you’re not actually advocating for or against the election of someone or a proposition, then you pretty much fall outside” most regulations, he said.
Oliverson, the Republican state representative, said he’d like to address those gaps when the Legislature’s next regular session begins in 2025. Though he declined to comment on promotions regarding Paxton because of a gag rule ahead of Paxton’s impeachment trial, Oliverson said he was deeply troubled by the idea that influencers are getting paid to advocate for positions without revealing their financial stakes.
“I’m somebody who cares about truth and motivation,” he said. “I really dislike manufactured outrage and manufactured narratives. I prefer people to be honest, straightforward and truthful. And so I do think that, at a bare minimum, these things should have to be disclosed.”
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/08/14/influenceable-texas-politics-ken-paxton/.
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