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As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis soaked up the crowd’s adulation during a surprise appearance at last Sunday’s NFL playoff game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Kansas City Chiefs, a lesser-known team was on hand to run a very different kind of play.
By the time the governor took his seat at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, video of his smile-and-wave routine—smoothly filmed in vertical mode, perfect for sharing—was already circulating online.
But the most important plank of DeSantis’ play was executed on a much different field: the arena of social media. Promptly after the clip was posted, right-wing Twitter accounts with thousands of followers amplified it and caused it to spread like wildfire among a DeSantis-loving audience. The clip would end up racking up over over 2 million views on Twitter.
That was no accident. It was—and is—a core element of the DeSantis team’s political strategy as he gears up for a possible run for the presidency in 2024. According to five Republicans familiar with the discussions, the governor’s top lieutenants have quietly recruited a network of conservative social media influencers as part of a broader attempt to circumvent the mainstream press and appeal directly to GOP primary voters nationwide.
And who are, according to the three Republicans who received the initial pitch, among the ranks in DeSantis’ digital army?
Jack Murphy, a podcast host and self-described “alpha-male giga chad” involved in a quasi-professional cuckolding porn scandal. John Cardillo, a former Newsmax TV host and unregistered arms dealer who allegedly stiffed the Ukrainian government for $200,000 worth of body armor plates. Christian Walker, Herschel Walker’s right-wing influencer son who helped tank his father’s Senate campaign. David Reaboi, a Hungary-loving and Qatar-hating bodybuilder with longstanding ties to John Bolton. And Caleb Hull, an ex-Trump digital strategist who has said some very, very racist things.
This is the DeSantis A-team, and they’re fighting a battle for a presidential campaign that hasn’t even started yet—with plenty of DeSantis face time, dinners, and photo ops.
.@GovRonDeSantis’s popularity goes far beyond FL.
I spent most of this past week in Vegas and the Phoenix area and the reaction to his name is the same.
Same when I was in the Midwest a few months ago.
— John Cardillo (@johncardillo) January 21, 2023
The effort has picked up steam ever since Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’ perennially online rapid response director, moved from the governor’s office to his campaign in August of last year.
Pushaw, who has deep connections in right-wing media, has been reaching out—either in person or through intermediaries—to recruit conservative influencers, promising to boost their follower count and engagement with the help of an alleged “bot farm,” according to three Republican influencers who received the pitch.
“I didn’t realize I was being used,” said one of the conservative influencers who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity.
“A friend of mine in Miami told me Christina was recruiting people to, I guess, promote DeSantis on social media. They started doing a sprawling influencer campaign,” the Republican continued. “It’s not a lot of the big influencers, I don’t know if you’d call them mid-tier influencers or micro-influencers—I think it’s a ragtag band of misfits, quite frankly. It’s like a lot of these washed-up MAGA people who either sell their soul, or are a little, uh, out there.”
Another GOP communications strategist who was approached for the influencer campaign said they heard promises of being “paid to tweet” about DeSantis or produce other forms of content, though the exact method of payment wasn’t clear.
Both sources said the idea was sold to them as being paid to boost DeSantis on social media with the help of the “bot farm” to boost the reach of their content. The Republicans who were approached—and ultimately turned down the pitch—said they believe DeSantis’ campaign pays the influencers off the books or through a third-party vendor, though no one said they knew exactly how that would work or what the offer would be. Perks could also just be as simple as increased Twitter engagement, or subtle perks like gift bags during a trip to the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee.
Another hallmark of the influencers in DeSantis’ good graces is when they break a nugget of news before any other official outlets—or when the big players all seize on the same attack.
🚨 Breaking: Florida Supreme Court grants Gov. Ron DeSantis' request to impanel a statewide grand jury to investigate Covid vaccine manufacturers.
— Dr. Eli David (@DrEliDavid) December 22, 2022
“Enthusiasm for Governor DeSantis is generated through his relentless work to keep Floridians free, not paying for retweets. We do not pay ‘influencers’ to tweet nor do we pay for ‘bot farms.’ People do that?” DeSantis spokeswoman Lindsey Curnutte told The Daily Beast.
“Touch some grass, Jake,” Curnutte added, along with 20 bullet points on political and policy victories from the DeSantis administration, ranging from his overwhelming re-election to lowering the cost of prescription drugs.
There has, notably, yet to be any federal guidance on whether online influencers are subject to the same regulations and disclosure requirements as other political advertisers.
But either way, DeSantis’ team of influencers is full of flaws.
Cardillo has his international arms dealer brouhaha. Murphy has a bizarre scandal revolving around cuckolding, where he claimed he was the victim of a revenge porn scheme only to later admit “people paid us to fuck on the couch” in a Facebook post explaining “more bad news coming out about me.” Hull was exposed by Right Wing Watch in the summer of 2020 for using an anonymous gaming-related Twitter account in 2014 to use racial slurs; in one instance, he asked a Black e-sports player where he picks his cotton.
Walker appears to have been the biggest catch for DeSantis’ team. With an established brand and a vast audience on social platforms, Walker was presented as a “blue chip” asset for the squad, according to the GOP communications strategist who was approached.
A representative for Walker declined to comment. Cardillo, Hull and Reaboi didn’t respond to requests for comment.
A submission form on Murphy’s website requires those wishing to submit a question to put, in writing, that men are generally taller than women. He also didn’t return a request for comment.
For a figure hyped as the future of the GOP—and a potential Trump-slayer in the 2024 primary—DeSantis has not exactly impressed right-wing circles with the stable of influencers his team has assembled.
“They’re not sending their best, OK?” one of the aspiring influencers approached by the DeSantis team told The Daily Beast. “They all live in Miami. They hang out with Christina daily. She feeds them all the narratives and the talking points, and that’s basically her role… trying to control the narrative on social media.”
Although DeSantis has been wildly successful in Florida, there’s little indication how he might fare under the bright lights of a nationwide presidential campaign. To the extent that his influencer play is a clue, some Republicans are more bearish on his prospects.
“If this is his strategy,” the Republican strategist said, “and these are his close friends, he is going to get toasted if he runs for president. He will be Jeb 2.0.”
An honor to be invited to Ron DeSantis’ Inaugural Ball 🇺🇸
America’s governor. pic.twitter.com/G6PH0u7nch
— Caleb Hull (@CalebJHull) January 4, 2023
While the governor’s courting of influencers gained the most attention around a dinner party and rooftop cocktail soiree DeSantis hosted for them in Tallahassee on Jan. 6, 2022, sources familiar with the governor’s strategy were able to shed new light on the specifics of the unorthodox play.
Above all, the prospect of increased engagement with followers and significantly juiced follower counts were Team DeSantis’ main selling points.
That pitch did not prove persuasive to everyone, however. “Congratulations, you got 100 retweets from the DeSantis bot farm,” said the second Republican who was approached. “It doesn’t move the needle in real life.”
Accounts such as @zuoying19 and @MaxNordau have raised eyebrows in MAGA corners of Twitter as the Trump-DeSantis proxy war wages on, according to sources familiar with the influencer outreach, particularly for their nearly 24/7 pace of tweeting and their tendency to relentlessly parrot the same pro-DeSantis phrases, word for word, in replies to seemingly unrelated issues.
— John Cardillo (@johncardillo) January 22, 2023
In a direct message to The Daily Beast, @MaxNordau would not disclose their identity, but said they were “not a state employee, a member of a political campaign, or an employee of any political organization. Nobody pays me to do anything in politics in any capacity.”
While the DeSantis campaign would not say who paid for the influencer reception on the night of Jan. 6, 2022, Florida campaign finance records show an expense, dated to that night for over $42,000, to TMA Direct—a direct response and digital marketing firm acquired by the GOP mega-firm Targeted Victory in June.
While the DeSantis digital strategy is ostensibly novel at this stage of a presidential election, the rise of Donald Trump paved the way for the Florida governor’s acolytes to blur the lines between real and fake, said Carnegie Mellon University professor Ari Lightman.
“We've seen this time and time again with nation state actors utilizing bot farms as a mechanism to sort of sway public opinion,” Lightman, a professor of digital media and marketing, told The Daily Beast.
When presented with some of the repeated tweet phrasing from the DeSantis-aligned influencers and the alleged bot accounts in question, Lightman said the techniques deployed are not at all uncommon in digital marketing in the 2020s, straddling the line between “astroturfing” and “a coordinated strike.”
So who’s stanning Ron DeSantis? A group of like-minded individuals bolstered by a growing online fanbase of exclusively real people only using one account each, or some blend of astroturfing and the coordinated strike?
“It’s been harder to sniff those things out because they’ve actually put irregularity into it,” Lightman said of the cutting-edge AI content generators in the marketing space, which can disguise themselves to mimic human user activity.
“So if it’s kind of like an arms race,” he said. “If you know what the other side is doing or what the other side is looking for, then you program things in it that will avoid detection.”
Without getting into the legal weeds of protected speech, Lightman said the bigger problem highlighted by the DeSantis strategy is a confluence of factors that will take the 2024 election into truly uncharted waters.
“This whole space is a tinderbox,” he said, “that will be blowing up in 2023.”