WeSearchr, a platform for crowdsourcing journalistic “investigations,” was always going to generate controversy, simply by dint of its co-founders: Chuck Johnson and Pax Dickinson. Johnson, as you may know, is a far-far-right troll — he’s argued that former president Barack Obama is gay, and notoriously misidentified the anonymous alleged victim from the collapsed Sabrina Erdely Rolling Stone case — who maybe, but probably not, but maybe helped vet certain Trump appointees. If nothing else, Johnson is eager to give the impression that he has deep ties to the Trump administration, and since he used to work for Steve Bannon at Breitbart, it’s not out of the question. Dickinson is himself a controversial figure who was forced out as Business Insider’s chief technology officer in 2013, as a result of offensive tweets he published.
The duo launched WeSearchr last year as a new sort of crowdfunding platform, in which bounties would be placed on certain reporting goals — get Hillary Clinton’s health records, for example — though, in at least one instance, it has also served as a more basic sort of Kickstarter for Nazis, as when it was used by Nazi activist Andrew Anglin to raise more than $24,000 for a legal fight against the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Now, though, there appears to be some drama afoot: The site is down, apparently as a result of Johnson having failed to pay hosting fees, and Johnson and Dickinson have parted ways. Dickinson took to Twitter to explain:
In the rest of the tweetstorm, Dickinson claims he resigned as CTO because Johnson refused to fulfill a promise to make it up to a developer they had underpaid while they were trying to raise money. After they finally got a sizable chunk of cash, Dickinson claims, Johnson refused to give the developer in question a $1,000-per-month pay bump, leading Dickinson to resign. After he did, Johnson fired the developer.
As shocking as it no doubt is to learn that Chuck Johnson may not be a paragon of ethics in business, the most fascinating revelation contained in Dickinson’s Twitter thread is the apparent million-dollar investment. There’s more money than is often widely acknowledged floating around to fund far-right online content, even content as fringy as a crowdfunding website run by a widely reviled and frequently wrong activist-journalist. In the absence of further information, there’s no way to know who Dickinson is referring to, but this is the sort of investment folks like hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah have made in the past (the Mercers, for instance, funded Milo Yiannopoulos’s explosive college tour, allowing him to charge a $0 speaking fee). Johnson has, in the past, bragged about his connections to Peter Thiel. Once in a while, one gets a brief glimpse at this funding infrastructure: During a public spat between Mike Cernovich and the noxious alt-right personality Tim Treadstone, a.k.a. “Baked Alaska,” over the latter’s anti-Semitic tweets in January, for example. Cernovich seemed to indicate that he had paid Treadstone for some of his activities. But it’s unlikely that Cernovich did that out of the goodness of his heart, so where did Cernovich get his money? If the veil is ever lifted, revealing the alt-right’s full funding scheme, it may turn out that a rather small group of wealthy individuals were able to spend a (in the grand scheme of things) small amount to generate a huge amount of trollish, far-right, reactionary content.
Either way, it’s worth noting that there was always more than a whiff of shadiness to WeSearchr. Johnson seemed to openly admit to Heat Street back in February that the platform was mostly set up as a way for him to get himself paid for information he already possessed, or could get. In fact, thanks to Johnson’s friendship with Malik Obama, Barack’s very MAGA-enthusiastic half-brother, he (Johnson) was able to collect two of the just five bounties the site had handed out by February, for $38,000. “Johnson said he did not remember how much he paid Malik for the two pieces of information: a video of Barack and Michelle’s trip to Kenya in 1990, and an early draft of Barack’s memoir, Dreams From My Father,” writes Heat Street’s William Hicks. “Johnson alleged both contained compromising information about Obama.” Naturally.