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Texas could require social media influencers to disclose paid political posts

The Tribune reported last year that a company called Influenceable LLC was paid to recruit influencers to defend Attorney General Ken Paxton over his impeachment.
Posted: 10:15 AM, Mar 29, 2024
Updated: 2024-03-29 11:15:37-04
The Texas Ethics Commission took the first step in adopting rules that would require social media influencers to include political advertising disclosures.

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(Texas Tribune) — Texas’ top campaign finance watchdog gave initial approval last week to a proposal that would require social media users to disclose if they are being paid to share or create political advertisements.

The Texas Ethics Commission’s action comes just months after The Texas Tribune reported that a secretive and politically-connected company, called Influenceable LLC, paid internet influencers to defend Attorney General Ken Paxton ahead of his Senate impeachment trial.

The proposed rule could be finalized at the commission’s next meeting in June.

Commissioners did not mention Influenceable by name at their March 20 meeting. But the agency’s general counsel, James Tinley, noted that the rule change was in response to “at least one business” that paid social media users for undisclosed political messaging.

“It is not a hypothetical,” he said. “There is at least one business whose business model now is to do just that.”

In August, the Tribune reported on Influenceable’s attempts to sway public opinion ahead of the impeachment trial by paying Gen Z social media influencers — some with millions of online followers — to claim that Paxton was the victim of a witch hunt. They also flooded social media with posts that accused House Speaker Dade Phelan, a longtime Paxton foe who greenlit the House investigation, of being a drunk.

Influenceable has deep connections to an array of prominent GOP groups and figures allied with Paxton. The company has a partnership with Campaign Nucleus, a political messaging platform that is owned by Brad Parscale, a San Antonio native who led former President Donald Trump’s digital campaign strategy in 2016 and his reelection bid in 2020. And, last June, the company sponsored a two-day event in Fort Worth that was also attended by Midland billionaire Tim Dunn and his son, David. Parscale, who recently moved to Midland to work with Dunn, spoke at the event alongside Dunn and his son.

Dunn and another West Texas oil tycoon, Farris Wilks, have been by far the biggest funders of Paxton’s political career. Since 2002, their groups and families have collectively given Paxton more than $4.65 million in donations and loans — triple what he’s received from his second-largest donor, Texans For Lawsuit Reform PAC.

Dunn and Wilks were also the main financiers behind Defend Texas Liberty, a political action committee that gave $3 million to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick before he presided over Paxton’s Senate trial. Campaign finance records also show that Defend Texas Liberty gave $18,000 to “Influencable LLC” — an apparent misspelling — days before the Texas House made its investigation into Paxton public. Not long after the payment, an array of prominent influencers began to flood Instagram, TikTok or X, formerly known as Twitter, with pro-Paxton posts.

Throughout the summer, influencers also frequently promoted a new film that claimed the Texas House is secretly controlled by Democrats and “Republicans In Name Only,” or RINOs, who wanted to destroy conservatives. The film was produced by Texas Scorecard, a conservative website that is also funded by Dunn and Wilks. Leaked recruitment texts from Influenceable offered some social media figures $50 to share one post about the movie or share a specific post from Paxton’s personal X account.

Influencers then did exactly that, with some adding their own commentary alongside the post they’d shared from Paxton’s account. “RINOs in Texas are still trying to impeach Ken Paxton,” wrote Vince Dao, a far-right activist with 240,000 Instagram followers. “STOP THE WITCH HUNT!”

Influenceable’s tactics outraged some Republicans last summer. Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, told the Tribune at the time that he was disgusted by the “manufactured outrage” and called for Influenceable to be investigated. Oliverson, who announced last week that he is running to be House speaker for the 2025 legislative session, also said he’d like lawmakers to address companies like Influenceable when they next meet. Since then — and amid a 2024 GOP primary that was rife with misinformation — other Republicans have also suggested reforming some of the state’s ethics and political advertising rules.

Dunn and Wilks spent more than $3 million on far-right primary candidates this year through a new political action committee, Texans United For a Conservative Majority, that was created last year after the Tribune reported that Defend Texas Liberty’s then-leader, Jonathan Stickland, had hosted notorious white supremacist and Adolf Hitler admirer Nick Fuentes for nearly seven hours in October. Subsequent reporting by the Tribune found numerous other white supremacists or antisemites working for groups funded by Defend Texas Liberty — including at least one social media figure who also attended the June event in Fort Worth that was sponsored by Influenceable.

Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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