The Far-Right Helped Create The World’s Most Powerful Facial Recognition Technology
FACEBAD Clearview AI, which has alarmed privacy experts, hired several far-right employees, a HuffPost investigation found.
Advanced facial recognition technology poses a mortal threat to privacy. It could grant the government, corporations and even average citizens the ability to capture a photo of anybody and, with a few keystrokes, uncover all kinds of personal details. So when The New York Times published an exposé about a shadowy facial recognition firm called Clearview AI in January, it seemed like the worst nightmare of privacy advocates had arrived.
Clearview is the most powerful form of facial recognition technology ever created, according to the Times. With more than 3 billion photos scraped surreptitiously from social media profiles and websites, its image database is almost seven times the size of the FBI’s. Its mobile app can match names to faces with a tap of a touchscreen. The technology is already being integrated into augmented reality glasses so people can identify almost anyone they look at.
Clearview has contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, BuzzFeed reported earlier this year, and FBI agents, members of Customs and Border Protection, and hundreds of police officers at departments nationwide are among its users.
With the coronavirus pandemic increasingly throwing the country into chaos and President Donald Trump moving to expand domestic surveillance powers ― in theory, to better map disease spread ― Clearview has sought deeper inroads into government infrastructure and is now in discussions with state agencies to use its technology to track infected people, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Even if you’ve never heard of Clearview, you likely have an online presence — maybe a friend or a relative has posted a photo of you to Facebook — which means you’re probably in its database. Clearview’s CEO and co-founder, Cam-Hoan Ton-That, and his associates chose to mass-violate social media policies against scraping accounts to build an image warehouse of unprecedented size, as several outlets have noted recently.
What hasn’t been reported, however, is even scarier: Exclusive documents obtained by HuffPost reveal that Ton-That, as well as several people who have done work for the company, have deep, longstanding ties to far-right extremists. Some members of this alt-right cabal went on to work for Ton-That.
Clearview stated that it had immediately parted ways with some of these people when HuffPost reached out for comment for this story, but the pervasive links between the company and the alt-right can’t be simply dismissed as a few bad apples.
Big Brother, it turned out, was wearing a MAGA cap.
A Mysterious Hacker
Little is known about Ton-That, a 31-year-old Australian hacker who moved to San Francisco in 2007. He made a name for himself two years later by unleashing a computer worm that phished the login credentials of Gmail users. Ton-That showed no remorse after journalists traced the worm to him— he simply set up another phishing site.
By 2015, he had joined forces with far-right subversives working to install Trump as president. They included Mike Cernovich, a Trump-affiliated propagandist who spearheaded the near-deadly Pizzagate disinformation campaign; Andrew “weev” Auernheimer, a neo-Nazi hacker and the webmaster for The Daily Stormer; and Pax Dickinson, the racist former chief technology officer of Business Insider who went on to march with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In this far-right clique, two of Ton-That’s associates loomed larger than most thanks to their close connection to billionaire Peter Thiel, a Facebook board member and Trump adviser: Jeff Giesea, a Thiel protégé and secret funder of alt-right causes, and Charles “Chuck” Johnson, a former Breitbart writer and far-right extremist who reportedly coordinated lawfare against media organizations with Thiel. And according to new documents obtained by HuffPost, Johnson appears to have received funding from Thiel for a startup that the Southern Poverty Law Center would label a “white nationalist hate group.” (Johnson has filed suit against HuffPost in Texas over a January 2019 article about his visits to members of Congress to discuss “DNA sequencing.”)
People involved with Clearview appear to have gone to great lengths to conceal their links to the company and each other. Johnson, for instance, does not appear on any of the incorporation documents and has left little public trace of his association with Ton-That beyond a Facebook post. But multiple far-right sources who know Johnson told HuffPost that he and Ton-That were in close contact at least as early as 2016, and that Johnson told them he was working with Ton-That on facial recognition.
Johnson told one source late that year that he viewed the technology as a way to potentially “identify every illegal alien in the country.” In early 2017, Johnson introduced Ton-That to another source, saying he was a gifted coder he’d hired to build the facial recognition tool. Around the same time, Johnson stated on Facebook that he was “building algorithms to ID all the illegal immigrants for the deportation squads.”
Video and private messages obtained by HuffPost confirm that Johnson and Ton-That were collaborating on far-right schemes in 2016; by early 2017 at the latest, they were in contact about scraping social media platforms for the facial recognition business. At least two people who worked for Johnson took jobs with and worked for Clearview until late March, when the company claims to have severed ties with them after HuffPost reached out with questions.
Thiel himself has an obvious interest in mass surveillance: Palantir, his data-mining behemoth, aggregates enormous amounts of personal information about immigrants and undocumented workers, and it provides the analytical tools for ICE raids. In 2017, Thiel became one of Clearview’s earliest investors. He did not respond to questions sent to him and his spokesperson.
Like other tech products scaled in dodgy ways, Clearview may have grown too big to rein in. Every time police use Clearview, they upload images of people they’re trying to identify ― even child sex abuse victims ― to Ton-That’s unregulated and ever-expanding database, where they are stored indefinitely.
No federal laws exist to govern the use of facial recognition. “The weaponization possibilities of this are endless,” Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, told the Times.
Clearview also appears to spy on law enforcement searches. After a Times reporter had police officers run her photo through the app, the officers received calls from Clearview representatives asking if they were speaking to a journalist. The potential for abuse is vast.
“The fear is that the kind of authoritarian control this [tool] will grant will wind up in the hands of the wrong people,” said Liz O’Sullivan, the technology director at the nonprofit Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.
Like, for instance, a Clearview contractor who is fond of disseminating Third Reich propaganda about Jews. The same extremist, with whom Ton-That now claims to have parted ways, was instrumental in helping sow disinformation from Kremlin operatives in 2016 to assist the Trump campaign. A Clearview “investigator” who appeared to work for the company until late March is part of a D.C.-based white nationalist crew that gathers in secret.
Yet another Clearview employee who left the company after an inquiry from HuffPost is a Croatian-born extremist who wrote in 2015 that he “wholeheartedly endorse[s] racism, racialism, ethnocentrism, Islamophobia, Eurocentrism and anti-Semitism.” Writing under a pseudonym on various blogs, he had embraced the possibility of balkanizing America, which could allow authoritarian states such as Russia or China to fill the power vacuum.
“For a stable and sustainable global order to exist,” he wrote, “the United States Government as we know it must be destroyed.”
A White National Convention
In July 2016, far-right extremists descended on Cleveland for the Republican National Convention. The alt-right’s intellectual figurehead, Richard Spencer, was there, as was Cernovich. So was Johnson, who at the time was running GotNews, a site that employed white nationalists to crank out race-baiting content for Trump supporters. Peter Brimelow, the publisher of the white nationalist VDARE, showed up. British political saboteur Milo Yiannopolous attended a “twinks for Trump” party that featured anti-Muslim speakers such as Pamela Geller and Geert Wilders.
One night, Spencer attended a dinner with Johnson and other members of the far-right at an upscale Italian restaurant. He found himself sitting at a table with Ton-That, a striking figure with long black hair. The hacker arrived at the dinner with Johnson after they’d caused a minor fracas. They’d harassed Michelle Fields, a former Breitbart reporter who’d had her arm roughly grabbed at a Trump rally a few months earlier by the candidate’s then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. At the RNC, Johnson chased after Fields in the street until her fiancé shoved him away. The incident was captured in a video uploaded to Johnson’s GotNews YouTube channel. In the background, you can see Ton-That with Johnson, laughing as Fields scrambles away. (Fields worked for HuffPost at the time.) Over dinner that night, the hacker was more subdued.
“He was smart,” Spencer told HuffPost of Ton-That. “He was into this esoteric reactionary sphere stuff. I remember he was talking about celibacy and the priestly order being celibate and thinking for the group and not having mundane concerns. He was into quasi-Catholic neo-trad[itional] reactionary type stuff.”
The neoreactionary movement, also known as “NRx” or “Dark Enlightenment,” is a geeky subset of the racist, misogynistic far-right that has festered in Silicon Valley’s libertarian circles for over a decade, especially within the cryptocurrency community. Its members revere Thiel, microdose LSD and gussy up totalitarian ideas with a pseudo-intellectualism that creates a moral pretext for them to undermine ― “engineer,” they might say ― democracy. With tech skills and access to vast wealth, they have an influence that has eluded the bookish young men in Spencer’s orbit. Ton-That had been affiliated with this neoreactionary confederacy since before the 2016 RNC.
The movement’s high priest, Curtis Yarvin, is a programmer who goes by “Mencius Moldbug” and has a cryptocurrency startup funded by Thiel. Yarvin, who seemingly endorses slavery and has written approvingly of apartheid, has argued the U.S. would be better off if ruled by a CEO-king. To make this happen, he advocates for a soft coup. Among neoreactionaries, Trump is often referred to as the “God-Emperor” who will restore order to an immigrant-flooded nation under the thumb of a progressive media-academic complex ― “global Jewry,” in neo-Nazi-speak.
Giesea, whose ties to Thiel go back decades, organized the dinner in Cleveland. As a student, he edited Thiel’s libertarian newspaper, The Stanford Review. He later worked for Thiel’s first hedge fund, and then for Koch Industries’ public affairs office. Thiel put up seed money when Giesea started his own company.
Ahead of the 2016 election, Giesea worked closely with Cernovich to help organize a social media insurgency that could direct the far-right’s energy toward a singular purpose: getting Trump elected. Their network amplified extremists, besmirched opponents and disseminated Kremlin-boosted disinformation.
In a “How to Fund the Alt-Right” guide posted online in 2016 under an alias Giesea used, donors were encouraged to give money to white nationalist and neo-Nazi organizations. (“Not me at all,” Giesea said. “I don’t know who did that.”) The guide stressed the importance of anonymity and recommended donors use Bitcoin and PayPal, the online money transfer company founded by Thiel.
Spencer said Giesea donated $5,000 ― the maximum amount that didn’t require donor disclosure to the IRS ― to his white nationalist organization, the National Policy Institute, in 2016. (“No comment,” Giesea said.) Spencer told HuffPost that he later came to feel as if Giesea was trying to use the energy of the alt-right for political subversion and profit.
Auernheimer, the neo-Nazi hacker, described Giesea in a private Discord chat as a “major investor providing help to racists … a hugely connected dude … with lots of business interests who was supporting [T]rump stuff.” (“That’s not true,” Giesea said.)
At Giesea’s dinner in Cleveland, conversation turned, inevitably, to building the ethnostate, according to Katie McHugh, a former Breitbart editor who attended the event and has since renounced far-right extremism. A group of Hispanic waiters in earshot looked on warily. Someone at the table apologized to them. The waiters laughed nervously. Then the extremists, Ton-That among them, set out into the night to put their plans into motion.
If you were a hip far-right elitist in 2016, the online place to be was a Slack channel Johnson set up for WeSearchr, a now-shuttered crowdfunding platform he had launched. In private messages between Johnson and McHugh from 2015, Johnson described a meeting with Thiel that year to pitch his crowdfunding idea.
“Thiel gave me all the money I need,” Johnson said. “[W]rote me a check on the spot.”
Thiel declined to comment.
WeSearchr raised bounties for alt-right causes and would soon earn the designation of “white nationalist hate group” from the SPLC.
Johnson had a well-deserved reputation as a troll, but he was also a central node in a web of extremists. And he had many enemies ― the social media companies that took away his platforms, the news outlets that exposed him, the liberal society that he was convinced had allowed minorities to get into Harvard at his expense.
“When I met Chuck, I wondered why we weren’t weaponizing people like him,” Giesea told BuzzFeed.
Giesea belonged to Johnson’s WeSearchr Slack. So did Cernovich. And so did Ton-That.
Altogether, there were about 400 people in the channel, according to McHugh, who was a member and provided HuffPost with several dozen messages from the channel. The group was a who’s who of racist political saboteurs and moneyed terraformers of society, with a sprinkling of alt-right celebrities like George Zimmerman, who joined the channel in June 2016 and was auctioning off the weapon he used to kill Trayvon Martin. Johnson, who had deemed Zimmerman a “great man,” published a GotNews post to drive up the price of “the mighty gun that slain the dindu.”Ton-That shared his far-right views in the WeSearchr Slack, as well as online more broadly. He has since deleted his social media accounts, but archives of his Twitter exchanges from 2015 and 2016 show him spreading anti-liberal talking points and Islamophobia, as well as amplifying figures like Yiannopolous.
“He was clearly reading/listening to pretty trashy conservative media, and/or pretty trashy conservative people.”
– Ben Wheeler, a coder in New York, about Clearview co-founder Cam-Hoan Ton-That
Ben Wheeler, a coder in New York who met Ton-That in 2015 through programmer pals, called out the Australian for tweeting far-right conspiracies in the run-up to the 2016 election.
“He had some very inaccurate takes on [Hillary] Clinton, he was clearly reading and talking to people in the Breitbart vein,” Wheeler wrote in a message to HuffPost. “[A]s an example of her corruption, he pointed to the ways he said the Clintons used Chelsea Clinton’s wedding to embezzle money. I looked that up and it was one of those almost certainly false claims from one untrustworthy source. He was clearly reading/listening to pretty trashy conservative media, and/or pretty trashy conservative people.”
One of these people was likely Andrew Auernheimer, the webmaster for The Daily Stormer, the most popular neo-Nazi website. Another member of the WeSearchr Slack channel and a close collaborator with Johnson, Auernheimer devoted ample time to boosting both Johnson’s crowdfunding platform and his extremist friends.
Aurenheimer told HuffPost that he had “never heard of” Ton-That. But in 2015, he appeared to interact publicly with him on Twitter to bemoan the number of liberals in academia, a conversation HuffPost was able to piece together by looking at replies to the two alt-right members that remain online.
Auernheimer spoke often of his desire to slaughter Jewish children, start a race war and destroy the United States. He landed in federal prison in 2013 on identity fraud and hacking charges. After his conviction was vacated on a jurisdictional technicality, he reentered society with a giant swastika on his chest. He declared himself a neo-Nazi on The Daily Stormer and called for government agents and their families to be assassinated. He left the country and vowed revenge on America. “I plan on coming back with an army, be it human or automaton,” he wrote. He now claims to be based in Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova aligned with Moscow and beyond the reach of U.S. extradition treaties.
Like Ton-That, Auernheimer also had an interest in biometrics. Around the time of the 2016 RNC, he told a friend that he was “working on facial recognition, specifically about black people.” When contacted by HuffPost, Auernheimer clarified that he’d been “building a racial, not facial, recognition project [that] took characteristics from the entire body, not just the face.” At the time, the system had been too costly to mount on drones, he said, but he planned to revisit the idea soon. Auernhemier could not provide any proof to support his statements. Ton-That told HuffPost that Clearview had nothing to do with the neo-Nazi.
“I never met him and he did no work for the company,” Ton-That said.
But Auernheimer had worked closely with Johnson for years, and he, too, claimed a connection to Thiel. A month after being released from prison in 2014, Auernhemier told a hacker friend in direct messages that he was “meeting with Peter Thiel’s right hand.” (Auernheimer denied making this claim, but HuffPost authenticated the messages with their recipient. Thiel didn’t respond to questions for this story.)
That same year, Auernheimer teamed up with Johnson to mine the leaked database of the Ashley Madison infidelity website for kompromat. They partnered again in 2015 to publish covertly recorded smear videos of Planned Parenthood officials. (Auernheimer told HuffPost he and Johnson “have nothing to do with each other” and are “radically opposed politically and socially.” HuffPost obtained numerous friendly emails they had exchanged.)
Johnson frequently collaborated with Giesea as well. In one especially inglorious caper, they arranged for Bill Clinton’s sexual assault accusers and Barack Obama’s Trump-supporting half-brother Malik to appear at the 2016 general election debates. “Malik Obama, getting him to endorse Trump, they brought him to Giesea’s apartment and just gave him cash,” Spencer said. “At least, that’s what Giesea told me.” (“I don’t recall any of that,” Giesea told HuffPost.)
When HuffPost reached Malik Obama in Kenya to ask if he’d taken money from Johnson and his associates to promote Trump, Obama responded by saying, “Donald Trump is the best president America ever had and Charles Johnson is my friend.”
But Johnson always had bigger plans than Malik Obama. He’d filled his black book with the names of far more important people whose coattails he could ride: Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas; xenophobic commentator Ann Coulter; Blackwater founder Erik Prince; high-profile attorney Alan Dershowitz — and Ton-That, whose technical ability offered Johnson a different pathway to power. They were the same age, with the same focus, fighting the same internet culture war.
In one WeSearchr Slack exchange, Johnson linked to an article about the aggressive stock trading habits of Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), calling her “one of the best day traders ever.”
“Of course,” Ton-That replied, “it’s a chink.”
They also agreed on target selection. The WeSearchr Slack members reserved a good portion of their animus for Gawker, a publication that had aggressively covered Thiel and his business interests. Thiel had furtively bankrolled numerous lawsuits against the blog ― the most notable being an invasion of privacy case filed by former professional wrestler Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea after Gawker published a portion of sex tape he was in.
The alt-right backed Thiel to the hilt. WeSearchr co-founder Pax Dickinson urged members of Johnson’s Slack channel to compile a list of Gawker employees and feed it to neo-Nazi trolls on far-right websites such as 4chan. “Let them do the contacting,” Dickinson wrote of the trolls, seemingly aware that his plan could lead to harassment.
Johnson had his own vendetta against Gawker, which had covered him critically and in one instance mocked him over a rumor that he defecated on a floor in college. Johnson had sued Gawker for defamation and later reached a confidential settlement with the blog. “In a just world, I’d have them killed,” Johnson said of Gawker and its CEO, Nick Denton. “But we are not there yet.”
Johnson, however, was in a position to crowdfund a WeSearchr bounty to sniff out plagiarism at Gawker, an ultimately fruitless quest. Ton-That, whom Gawker had also covered critically after his phishing scams seven years earlier, jumped at the chance.
“[W]ho else is working on gawker plagiarism & wants to collaborate?” he messaged the channel at the beginning of June 2016. “[I]’m scraping all their articles right now.”
On June 10, 2016, Gawker filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and put up its assets for sale. A few days later, Cernovich posted a photo of Ton-That and Johnson having a meal, both of them flashing the “OK” sign that has become a popular hand gesture for white nationalists in the Trump era.When BuzzFeed confronted Ton-That about the photo, he claimed he was “only making the Okay sign in the photo as in ‘all okay.’” That August, Ton-That messaged the WeSearchr channel with an idea to crash a “funeral” party Gawker employees were throwing to mourn the demolition of their publication. “Wish I had a hulkomania shirt,” he wrote.
It was during this period of his life, ensconced among extremists online and off, that Ton-That began building the company that would become Clearview.
In 2016, the Australian hacker brought on two unnamed engineers to help him on the project, according to The New York Times. Ton-That refused to give HuffPost their names. One helped design a program to scrape images of faces from a range of sites and social media platforms, often in violation of their policies. The other created a facial recognition algorithm.
The Birth Of ‘Smartcheckr’
On election night, Ton-That partied with Johnson and Dickinson in New York amid a sea of red MAGA caps. Two days later, Johnson posted a news story from The Sun to his Facebook. It included a photo of Dickinson and Ton-That celebrating bawdily. “My business partners are in the Sun and I feel left out,” Johnson wrote.
Johnson was very likely referring to a business that was registered in New York a few months later and followed the same naming convention as WeSearchr: Smartcheckr. The company would eventually rebrand as Clearview, as Ton-That later told the Times.
In January 2017, Johnson indicated on Facebook that he was “building algorithms to ID all the illegal immigrants for the deportation squads.” Soon, he was boasting to friends and acquaintances that he was working on a powerful facial recognition tool.
A person who used to be close to Johnson and requested anonymity out of concern for their safety told HuffPost that they saw him “with a whole bunch of really important people” at Trump Hotel in spring 2017, “and he was going on and on about this facial recognition software he had hired people to build.” Johnson, they added, was with one of these hires ― “some coding wizard” with long hair in a ponytail. “He kept introducing him as a prodigy who was building the software,” the source recalled. When HuffPost showed the source photos of Ton-That, they confirmed he was the man with Johnson. “If it’s not him, that’s his twin.”
Not long after the election, McHugh got a call from Johnson. “He told me they had a way to identify every illegal alien in the country,” she said. “He brought up facial recognition technology and demanded I call Stephen Miller because he knew Stephen Miller was a true believer.”
It’s unclear if Johnson ever spoke to Miller, the architect of Trump’s brutal immigration policy. But around the same time, Johnson was working behind the scenes with Giesea and Thiel ― a member of the transition executive committee ― to recommend alt-right candidates for science and technology appointments with the incoming administration, according to Forbes. A person close to Trump’s transition confirmed to Politico that Johnson participated in transition-related meetings.
By this point, Johnson had a well-documented track record of bigotry and dirty tricks. In 2015, he’d been permanently ― and noticeably ― suspended from Twitter after requesting funds to “take out” a Black civil rights activist. In 2016, he’d gone on an alt-right podcast called “Fash the Nation” to talk at length about the evolutionary traits of “Jews” and “Blacks.” (“They’re dumber,” Johnson said of African Americans.)
In January 2017, Johnson hosted a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session during which he was asked for his thoughts on “the Holocaust, WW2, and the JQ in general.” (The “JQ,” or “Jewish Question,” is a term anti-Semites, including Hitler, have used for over a century as shorthand for their conspiracy theory that Jews have too much control over society.) “I do not and never have believed the six million figure,” Johnson wrote. “I think the Red Cross numbers of 250,000 dead in the camps from typhus are more realistic but I confess to having complicated views on the subject. I think the Allied bombings of Germany were a war crime. I agree with [Holocaust revisionist] David Cole about Auschwitz and the gas chambers not being real. Why were their [sic] swimming pools there if it was a death camp?”
Two weeks after Johnson’s Holocaust denial on Reddit, SMARTCHECKR, LLC was registered in New York. The address associated with it belonged to Richard Schwartz, who had been a top aide to Rudy Giuliani when he was mayor of New York City. Schwartz would later admit to being one of the founders of Smartcheckr.
Thiel was one of the company’s earliest investors. “In 2017, Peter gave a talented young founder $200,000, which two years later converted to equity in Clearview AI,” Thiel’s spokesman, Jeremiah Hall, said in a statement. Hall didn’t specify which founder he meant and did not respond to questions for this story.
Emails and messages obtained by HuffPost show that Ton-That and Johnson were in touch about Smartcheckr in 2017. In one email thread, Johnson and his associates at GotNews discussed a dogwhistle post they were putting together about a racially motivated mass shooting in Fresno, California, that had been committed by a Black man who was Muslim. Tyler Bass, a GotNews writer, wondered if there was an easy way to scrape “an entire Facebook page quickly … the next time another American goes apeshit and before Facebook pulls it down out of shame.” He added Ton-That to the conversation, who replied quickly. “I’m working on this for smartcheckr,” the hacker wrote. “Plan to make these tools available for our guys.”
A Series Of Troubling Hires
Bass was one of Ton-That’s guys. He had become interested in hacker culture as a young man, and he was arrested on a computer harassment charge in Virginia in 2013 that either the alleged victim or the prosecutor declined to pursue.
Bass later morphed into a committed racist. By 2017, he was asking around about a writing job with American Renaissance, a heavyweight white nationalist organization. He already belonged to a white nationalist crew called the “DC Helicopter Pilots,” according to McHugh, who dated him in 2017. The group was a Washington-area chapter of The Right Stuff, an influential pro-Trump organization that attracts neo-Nazis. Members of the DC Helicopter Pilots ― likely a reference to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s practice of executing dissidents by throwing them out of helicopters ― met regularly, at least once to eat swastika-shaped cookies. One chapter leader was a State Department official assigned to the Bureau of Energy Resources who advocated for a nuclear-armed white ethnostate.
A few weeks after the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 ― which Bass told McHugh that he attended with his 8-year-old son ― he found a job as an “investigator” doing “remote software testing” at Smartcheckr.
HuffPost obtained five of Bass’s résumés spanning from May 2017 to the present. He claimed to have assembled “devastating opposition dossiers on open-borders figures and activists” while working for Johnson and said he created “counternarratives for third-party reporters to mold mass perception.” His résumés also say he helped Johnson vet candidates for the Trump administration transition team. The administration declined to comment.
Another early Smartcheckr hire was Douglass Mackey, an otherwise unremarkable Middlebury graduate who’d washed out of a job in finance and became an alt-right superstar in 2016 under the alias “Ricky Vaughn.” The advocate of “global white supremacy” was so effective at disseminating pro-Trump, anti-Semitic propaganda and Kremlin-originated disinformation that MIT Media Lab named his Twitter account on a list of top influencers on the election, ahead of NBC News and the Drudge Report.In 2017, Mackey and an unidentified partner pitched Smartcheckr to the racist Republican candidate Paul Nehlen, who was vying for the Wisconsin seat of retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan. Nehlen, another member of Johnson’s WeSearchr Slack channel, was quickly radicalizing from outlandish bigotry to white nationalist extremism. He’d soon appear on David Duke’s radio show to talk about machine-gunning migrant children.
In a proposal Mackey sent Nehlen, Smartcheckr promised to micro-target potential voters and donors for $2,500 per month. The company would do oppo research by tapping “unconventional databases.” Ton-That’s “proprietary search and facial recognition technology” would allow for analysis of voters’ social media and their views on various issues.
Nehlen said on a podcast that he gave Mackey access to his Facebook through Business Manager, a tool for managing pages and accounts, for three months. “He didn’t post anything,” he said. “He didn’t do anything. He was suggesting that he was going to be able to grow my audience or whatever. He did nothing.”
Ton-That told BuzzFeed that Mackey only worked “for 3 weeks as a consultant to Smartcheckr, which was the initial name of Clearview.” He denied any knowledge of Mackey’s Ricky Vaughn persona — even though Mackey was also a member of the WeSearchr Slack channel, where he used the handle “Richard Vaughn” and the same avatar that he did on Twitter. Ton-That claimed Mackey had been referred to him by a “liberal Democrat.” But Johnson posted a video in October 2016 in which he called Mackey a “friend of mine, a guy that I’ve talked to on the phone, a good guy.” Mackey did not respond to emails from HuffPost.
Ton-That also claimed Mackey sent an “unauthorized proposal” to Nehlen and that “the technology described in the proposal did not even exist.” And yet Johnson had been bragging about the technology for the better part of a year. Bass was already troubleshooting Smartcheckr’s “flagship product,” according to his résumé.
In early 2018, still angry about getting ripped off, Nehlen disclosed that Mackey was Ricky Vaughn — something that was previously known only to high-ranking members of the alt-right. One of them, Christopher Cantwell, posted the Smartcheckr proposal Mackey sent Nehlen on his website. Twitter and other platforms lit up with white nationalist chatter.
“[O]ne of my closest pals just got his life ruined,” Auernheimer said of Mackey in The Daily Stormer forum.
Luke O’Brien Apr 9, 2020