The Men Who Sold the False Hope of Stimulus Checks

Alex Mell-Taylor

When the pandemic hit America in March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to assist the millions of Americans and businesses facing hardships due to the ensuing recession. The law, among other things, set aside grant money for small businesses, temporarily increased unemployment benefits, as well as distributed a one-time stimulus check of $1,200 to all Americans earning under $75,000 a year. 

Since the passage of the CARES act, no new major relief has come on the federal level. It’s become a meme at this point for commentators to remark that Americans were only left with less than $5 a day to get through both a recession and a pandemic (that figure comes from $1,200 divided by the number of days since March 27th, 2020). People are desperate. Millions of Americans having already lost their jobs and their homes — many facing rampant food insecurity or worse. 

Sadly, this desperation has given rise to a cottage industry of online influencers who promise “updates” on a second stimulus check that, until very recently, had little chance of being passed. Americans might finally get a second relief package this winter — an effort long overdue — but we should pause and reflect on the men who took advantage of that hope for ad revenue. 

It’s important to note that there have been several moments during these past nine months, specifically during July and early October, where negotiations between Congressional Democrats and Republicans were ongoing. The early October negotiations, in particular, briefly had people somewhat hopeful. In late September, Nancy Pelosi remarked that she believed an agreement was possible, which made people think relief was finally on its way. 

These moments, however, always had deep ideologically and political hurdles to overcome. The first package was passed under the threat of tanking the entire economy, and without that same incentive, negotiations stalled. As we got increasingly close to November, it became clear that lawmakers preferred to settle the matter until after the election. This outcome was tragically always a high possibility. As the staff of hypothesized all the way back in May: 

“For now, the status of whether Americans will receive a second stimulus check is up in the air. If a second wave of relief does come to pass, it might not be soon enough for the Americans who are facing down bills, mortgages, and more.”

If you were active on the Internet during this time, though, that might not have been the impression you received. There were scores of YouTubers and other influencers who captured a lot of traffic by making hundreds of videos, all promising to have a vital update on a second stimulus check that would never arrive. 

“Minutes ago,” begins YouTuber Kevin Paffrath in a video posted to their channel Meet Kevin “the president has just met with Mark Meadows, and treasury secretary Mnuchin…Donald Trump has apparently, allegedly…approved a revised package and he would like to do a deal.” Kevin goes on to say that “this is incredible,” and while he doesn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, you can sense the excitement in his voice. “This is not a bad progression,” he exclaims while holding up a stuffed animal of the Super Mario Star. 

For context, this video was released on October 9th, several days after the President, over Twitter, scuttled weeks of negotiations that had gone into a second relief package. Trump then suddenly reversed this decision on the 9th by offering the $1.8 trillion counteroffer Kevin is referring to. Still, the deal would not go anywhere because the President neglected to get buy-in from either party. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi alleged that the offer failed to address key policy concerns (and was reportedly peeved at how Trump had ruined earlier negotiations). Congressional Republicans, on the other hand, were uncomfortable with the larger price tag.

A cursory search online would have told the influencer that we were not close at that time, but that apparently doesn’t soak in the eyeballs, or in Mr. Paffrath’s case, the affiliate marketing. While he has been doing some notable fundraising on his platform (a portion of his Ad Revenue for stimulus videos allegedly goes to the nonprofit No Kid Hungry), he also spends a lot of his time plugging links to applications such as Webull, encouraging viewers, many of whom seem to be there because they are desperate, to drop $100 to get free stock. He also offers online classes on his website that begin in the $300 range and go upwards to nearly $6,000, which is not affordable for a group of people desperate for another $1,200 check.

Mr. Paffrat has done at least one of these videos per day since mid-April, making a minimum of 235 and counting. They have all been a variation of the same theme: they take an inconsequential update from a public figure and inflate its importance. If reporting from CNBC is accurate, this has made him a fortune. He’s on track to make millions this year from his YouTube channel, and this is not a hustle that he is the only one doing.

Another YouTuber engaged in this activity is Brian Kim, an accountant belonging to the Tax Preparation business Clear Value. At one million subscribers, his YouTube Channel similarly puts out a minimum of one video per day about the possibility of a second stimulus check. This content likewise exaggerates updates about policy and commentary. “This has a high probability of passing because the Democrats always want to include more people into the recipients of the stimulus checks,” Kim said in a video on July 26th about Congressional Republican’s introduction of a $1 trillion COVID-19 aid package. 

As with the situation in October, though, the path forward for adoption was not as straight forward as Kim implied in this video. There were serious disagreements with Republicans and Democrats about both the package's cost (the Democrats were at the time shooting for $3 trillion) and about the policy inside it. The Republicans, for example, were insistent that employers have something called a “liability shield,” which would give employers immunity from Coronavirus-related lawsuits. The President also pushed to remove or cut the payroll tax, which earned him criticism from members inside his own party

Again, all of this information was readily available at the time online.

Kim does not have affiliate links or classes to plug. Still, he is making these videos on behalf of his Tax Preparation business, which means they all serve as an implicit, albeit less direct, advertisement for Clear Value. His videos can get views in the hundreds of thousands, and undoubtedly some of that attention has translated to added business. 

It cannot be overstated how many influencers are engaged in this game. They range from larger players such as Kevin Paffrath (Meet Kevin) and Brian Kim (Clear Value) to smaller outfits we haven’t yet talked about like David Clark (The TEC Show) and Michael Wrubel — the latter of who also plugs the stock app Webull.

These products are ultimately being marketed to people who need financial relief, not stock advice. “This is crazy….weve waited long enough for a stimulus. I just lost my daughter and have to make a Christmas for my 2 year old grandaughter (s.p.). How am I supposed to do that without a stimulus?” remarks one user under one of Michael Wrubel’s videos. “Right now, I am still barely able to pay my rent. I pray that rental/mortgage relief is granted for those who are very close to being homeless. Praying 🙏🙏🙏,” writes another in a Meet Kevin video. 

It’s a desperation that these influencers are well aware of and occasionally admit to in those fleeting moments of honesty they have with their viewers. As YouTuber Stephen Gardner told viewers in his December 9th video: “Here in my community, I know people that would really really love to get a stimulus check. I know others that follow me because they really need unemployment [benefits].” 

Yet this honesty never led anywhere. Their viewers watched in the hope that this information would give them more than simply false hope, yet it never came. 

The trend we see here of influencers taking advantage of people’s desperation for fame and fortune deserves the utmost scrutiny. There is a difference between reporting on the stimulus negotiations happening in Congress and taking advantage of people’s misery. 

News outlets and commentators followed the negotiations' ups and downs because they were (and continue to be) important. Congress’s failure to provide Americans true relief has led to millions of Americans losing their businesses, jobs, homes, and for far too many, their lives. Honest reporting told people how far away our leaders were from providing them relief from that suffering, even when it was frustrating. They focused on the reasons that made a second stimulus package’s passage so difficult (e.g., electoral politics and ideological differences).

The men who preached stimulus updates on the Internet could have done that as well. They could have said that a second stimulus was months away. They maybe could have even scrutinized the specific political leaders who held up negotiations and told their followers to bother them. 

Instead, they instructed cash-strapped viewers to buy stock and to sign up for get-rich classes they couldn’t afford, and we should never forget it. 

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Alex is a culture writer working at the intersections of digital life, politics, and entertainment.


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