PAC accused of ‘deep fake’ audio in 6th District GOP race 

Sixth District GOP candidates Christian Castelli (left) and former Rep. Mark Walker (right) are shown in this combination image. (Walker photo via AP)

RALEIGH — A PAC that has popped up in the North Carolina 6th Congressional District GOP primary recently posted to X what appeared to be “deep fake” style audio and video of former Congressman Mark Walker. 

The clips first appeared as two stand-alone posts on X but were removed after North State Journal inquired about them. The political action committee, First Freedoms Foundation, then blocked NSJ reporter A.P. Dillon. 

The clips, however, were also posted as replies to other posts made by certain campaigns but were later deleted. Not all versions of the fake clips disappeared; Walker retained one of the fake videos and published it on his X account. The post can be viewed at tinyurl.com/WalkerNSJ. 

In a press statement, the Walker camp denounced “a deepfake video posted yesterday by the pro-(Christian) Castelli PAC, First Freedoms Foundation,” which the Walker team said “depicts a false conversation with Rep. Walker and an ‘unknown friend,’” and that the video of Walker was “replaced with AI generated audio clips.” 

“This is an egregious use of AI technology and sets an example of what not to do in a campaign,” said Walker campaign strategist Paul Shumaker. “The FEC has already made it clear that false AI content violates federal election law and we intend to explore all legal options.” 

According to First Freedom Foundation’s website hosting information, the site was registered by Nicky Smith, the CEO and founder of Carolina Digital Phone, a web hosting and telecom company in Greensboro. 

In a phone interview, Smith repeatedly denied being involved with First Freedoms Foundation in any way, including the operation of the PAC’s website or any social media accounts. 

Smith said his name probably just came up because his name was listed as the site registrant. He later said he did not remember much about the people whom he met with who bought the site but said he thought one was “from Raleigh.” 

“Again, you’re stretching a 68-year-old memory of something I did a year ago, but to answer your question, no, I’m not associated with it,” Smith said. He told North State Journal he would “check his customer records” for the individuals associated with the PAC and its website. 

Smith did admit he donated to First Freedoms Foundation “when it first started up.” FEC records show a $2,000 donation made by James N. Smith, Jr., with an occupation listed as Carolina Digital Phone. 

Smith said he was unaware he had made a personal Facebook post on March 27, 2023, linking directly to the PAC’s website. He also denied knowing the name “Fredrick Macaulay,” the man listed as the point of contact on the PAC’s website. 

North State Journal reached out to Macaulay through the Washington, D.C., number associated with the PAC, but the call was sent to voicemail and not returned. An email to Macauley resulted in the single-sentence reply: “Traveling today and cannot read or respond to emails.” 

Last Friday, a volunteer with the PAC responded to a North State Journal email about the fake audio and video. The volunteer did not identify herself but said she was located in the United Kingdom.  

“What I can say is that the person that created the content in question has been removed from the team as we do not want fake news posted,” the volunteer wrote in response. “Our media creates only post-verified content. 

“I don’t know any of the content creators. I was just told internally he was a kid that did not know much about politics and was told to go away,” wrote the volunteer. “We all communicate internally in groups on WhatsApp chat.” 

The volunteer also referred to a lengthy statement issued by “our other team leaders” to North State Journal. 

“Our PAC has a large group of content creators that post to our social media,” the statement included. “Most are volunteers. The video in question, was posted during the evening hours after most of our team was not working by a new content creator and was never Sponsored by the PAC and was never used by the PAC for any advertising but was discovered organically from our Twitter account by the followers. When discovered it was removed within a few hours.” 

The statement also claimed the social media post was viewed 86 times before it was taken down but had nearly 7,000 since Walker shared a copy of the video. 

“Frankly, we don’t know why Mark Walker would repost this deleted video to this base of supporters unless he is trying to look like a victim, which he is clearly not,” the statement said. 

The statement also referred to Walker making “fake endorsement” claims and cited a blog post on the First Freedoms Foundation website. 

On Feb. 25, North State Journal reported that a 2022 endorsement video by NASCAR legend Richard Petty of Castelli had been recycled for the current primary election. 

The Castelli campaign said Petty had re-upped the endorsement, however, the Petty family said Richard Petty was making no endorsements for the 2024 primary. First Freedoms Foundation was also recycling the Petty video endorsement of Castelli. 

Castelli accused the Walker of causing problems in the race “because all of his endorsements have fallen through,” a claim Walker refuted.

About A.P. Dillon 1293 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_