On Thursday afternoon, 13-year old CJ Pearson warned his 43,900 followers not to believe what they read. The black Georgia teenager, whose activism and online success had made him a youth outreach chairman for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), had been trading messages with a reporter for Glenn Beck's news site, The Blaze. Oliver Darcy, a reporter for the site, was asking Pearson to prove — as he had claimed, to great viral attention — that President Obama had truly blocked him on Twitter. In lieu of proof, Pearson was calling for help.
"In a few minutes, @oliverdarcy is going to release a hit article on me and I'm going to take it," Pearson wrote. "Because here's what the PR folks are saying: say you lied and apologize to avoid backlash. But, instead, I choose to stand by my word. While the article will be incriminating, all we have in politics is our word and I stand by it. Nevertheless, I'm disappointed in
It was one of the more confusing moments in a story born to confuse. Coreco JaQuan Pearson's profile had been growing well before the Twitter story, thanks to his precocious and silver-tongued video denunciations of the president. The most successful had come just this month, when Pearson locked his eyes on a webcam and asked — rhetorically — why a president who so blatantly disrespected police officers had so quickly invited Texas teenager Ahmed Mohamed to the White House, after being disciplined for bringing to school a homemade clock that administrators mistook for a bomb.
"Mr. President, when cops are being gunned down, you don’t invite their family to the White House," Pearson said. "You never did. But when a Muslim kid builds a clock? Well, come on by."
The video was viewed nearly two million times and inspired dozens of profiles, including one in the Washington Post.
People trying to understand the Pearson phenomenon got it quickly. Wunderkinds arise on the right with some frequency. In 2009, it was 13-year old Jonathan Krohn — also a Georgian — giving a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference and becoming a quasi-celebrity. In 2013 it was Benji Backer, a 16-year old Wisconsinite whose story of high school administrators suppressing his political views got him onstage at CPAC and other conferences.
Neither Krohn nor Backer took to stardom. By 2012, Krohn was renouncing his old views in a series of interviews, and taking on a new life as a journalist. Backer's exit was quicker: By 2015, he worried that a political life was making him "selfish."
Pearson entered the political life with gusto, and no qualms. His first video, in February, was inspired by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani ranting to a room of conservative donors (and a pre-presidential bid Scott Walker) that President Obama did not love America.
"I don't want to be politically correct," said Pearson. "I don't care about being politically correct at this point. President Obama: You don't love America. If you loved America, you would call ISIS what it is... if you loved America, President Obama, you wouldn't try to take away what hard-working Americans have worked for their entire lives."
That video scored two million views, success Pearson wouldn't achieve on YouTube again until this month. But it was enough. By May, Pearson had a five-minute interview with Cruz that teed up the candidate's favorite talking points.
"Have we not maintained our promise to the American people to repeal Obamacare?" Pearson asked.
"CJ," said Cruz, "you're exactly right."
Pearson became a fervent Cruz supporter; in September, the Cruz campaign announced his new role as the head of "Teens for Ted," and Pearson added a TedCruz.org email address to his Twitter profile. Simply by speaking his mind, Pearson had become a conservative star.
There was one catch. Pearson had done more than speak. He'd left the impression that his speech was being silenced. In March, after the Giuliani video went viral, Pearson's Facebook account was closed. He was 12 years old when he shot the video, and as Facebook told reporters, no one could have an account until age 13. Pearson was not having it. He told a local Fox News affiliate that the First Amendment was "obviously not a big concern to the powers that be at Facebook." He told national Fox News that "time and time again, Facebook has shut down many conservative accounts after they decide to speak up."
No one had really been denied access to Pearson's speech, and he quickly solved the age problem by setting up a Facebook fan page and turning 13. But just four months later, Pearson announced that he would "take a break from politics and commentary." The reason was a complicated and quickly terminated fight with an obscure Twitter account with only (as of right now) 33 followers and no public profile. Jon Richards, a blogger for Georgia's PeachPundit, noticed that the most toxic aspect of the fight came from an account that egged it on with a racial slur. That account was easily traced back to Pearson.
Nothing came of either story, though, and Pearson started this week with more visibility than ever. A spokesman for the Republican National Committee tweeted that he'd "love to discuss" a speaking role for Pearson. Business Insider upgraded him from a rising star to a "leading 13-year old pundit." And then, Pearson tweeted what he claimed was a screenshot of @BarackObama blocking his account.
At first, no one questioned this. Twitchy, the conservative site that aggregates Twitter wars, reported that the White House was "afraid of a 13-year-old boy." The Daily Caller matter-of-factly reported that Pearson had been blocked, as did Breitbart, as did other conservative news sites. White House assistant press secretary Frank Benenati swiftly tweeted that Pearson was wrong, and that "nobody is or has ever been blocked from the @POTUS twitter account." That sent skeptics looking for cases where the account had blocked hostile accounts, and it inspired a new video from Pearson — which would be viewed half a million times — denouncing the White House for lying about him.
"They lied about Benghazi," he said, in high dudgeon. "They lied about the IRS. They lie about every issue of importance to the American people."
But other online sleuths could tell that something was off. First, a subsequent Pearson tweet revealed that he was still following @BarackObama. Second, there was no timestamp or external information on the tweet, and the kerning on the standard text "learn more" was skewed. Coincidentally, a popular parody account had previously tweeted an identical image (now deleted) of an Obama "blocking," with the same kerning.
Oliver Darcy, a reporter for the Blaze, dug into all of this and contacted Pearson. The wunderkind initially told him that he'd taken the shot on a Droid tablet. In the video, Pearson had claimed that he saw the blocking when he "got home," not specifying what device he'd used. As more questions swirled online, Pearson warned his fans that the "incriminating" piece was coming, but never said publicly whether it could be trusted.
Then, two hours after Darcy's piece went online, Pearson issued a fresh Facebook statement. "I'm not responding to fraudulent attacks on my character by the left nor RINOs," Pearson wrote. "My friend sent me the screenshot, since I accessed my account using his phone. I saw it with my own eyes. Time to move on."
Benji Backer watched the events unfold with disgust. After a short conversation, he pointed to the tweetstorm he'd written after reading the Blaze piece, about how "young conservatives have made the movement look foolish." He wasn't a part of that, but he knew Pearson was headed for a fall.
"I tried to give CJ advice," Backer wrote. "And I know he's going to lash out at me now. But we used to work together. I told him he had promise but that he had to keep it in perspective, truth [sic] and stay humble. Stardom can ruin those things and it did for him. CJ & I (when I was still in politics) were going to work on some things. But he didn't like advice and he wanted 'his brand' to grow instead. People, including myself, tried to help CJ. I really thought he could do great things. But he wasn't willing to listen. Most of all, CJ lied to me. Numerous times. And many people I know and love. That's when I knew there was a problem."
Reached on Twitter and at his campaign e-mail account, Pearson did not respond to questions. According to Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler, CJ Pearson remains part of the campaign.