April 24, 2024


Unlimited Technology

She Created an Ultra-Partisan News Agency; Now Billionaires Are Giving Her Funding to Fight Disinformation

Tara MGowan is shown speaking in a flowered dress against a blue backdrop.
ACRONYM CEO Tara McGowan in 2018. Screenshot via C-Span.

The founder of Acronym, a startup best-known for funding a company that went on to disastrously screw up the 2020 Iowa caucuses, is remaking herself as a fighter against disinformation, according to an Axios report from earlier this week. Tara McGowan does, to be fair, have some experience in the politically-motivated, ultra-partisan news space—but it’s on the wrong side. Acronym founded a news outlet, Courier Newsroom, which solely produced news favorable to Democratic candidates and elected officials, an unusual blend of newsroom and political action committee that might, in less polite company, be termed propaganda. (Courier disputes that characterization, and Acronym said it divested all ownership stake in Courier in April 2021.) Acronym then downplayed its deep ties to Shadow Inc., the company that messed up the Iowa caucuses; a VICE investigation found that the two companies were in fact intimately entwined from the start, according to a business plan we obtained.

All of this makes it a bit surprising that billionaire philanthropists Reid Hoffman and George Soros are funding what Axios describes as “a multi-million seed investment” into a new venture called Good Information, Inc., which, per Axios, will be led by McGowan. The founding of the company was first reported by Recode in February, when it had the bulkier title of the Project for Good Information.

Ironically, Hoffman’s money has previously, without his knowledge, been used to fund literal electoral disinformation. During the 2017 Alabama Senate elections, a group of Democratic political operatives used some of his funding to experiment with disinformation tactics on Facebook and Twitter, similar to tactics used by Kremlin-linked operatives to meddle in the 2016 presidential elections (a model they explicitly acknowledged following in a memo obtained by the New York Times and the Washington Post). They created Twitter bots as well as a Facebook page designed to look like it was backed by Alabama conservatives, with the goal of using it to split the Republican vote. When their tactics came to light, Hoffman apologized, saying he was “embarrassed” to learn his money had been spent this way, adding, “I categorically disavow the use of misinformation to sway an election.”

Good Information will, according to Axios’ reporting, “invest in new businesses and solutions that tackle the disinformation crisis. That could mean funding new or existing companies that boost news from existing news outlets.” One of those outlets will be none other than the Courier Newsroom, the same outlet which uproduces coverage flattering to Democrats. Good Information “will acquire Courier Newsroom from ACRONYM for an undisclosed sum as part of the deal,” Axios reported; the outlet also says that McGowan recused herself from the deal, as she was still on the board of Acronym when it was being negotiated. (This would seem to not square with Acronym’s claim that it divested its ownership stake in Courier earlier this year. A spokesperson told us, though, that the two transactions happened at the same time: “The Spring 2021 transaction was the both ACRONYM’s divestiture and sale to Good Information Inc. Tara recused herself from the ACRONYM board for the decision and subsequently resigned as CEO as of 04/30/2021.”)

During our reporting into the ties between Acronym, Shadow Inc., and the Courier Newsroom, McGowan objected strongly to the premise that she was, herself, creating propaganda or misinformation. “I’m taking one for the team by building progressive digital infrastructure,” McGowan told VICE in February 2020. “The fact that we are getting framed as nefarious for doing what the right has been doing is bullshit.”

A PR representative for Good Information told Motherboard, “Good Information believes that in an atmosphere of increased mistrust, transparency is essential.” 

The same PR representative also referred us to a press release in which McGowan is quoted as saying, “Good information that upholds the truth, common sense and shared values of a society is the lifeblood of democracy, and orchestrated disinformation — fueled and amplified by bias-driven algorithms — is its greatest threat. The disinformation crisis we are facing in America today is increasing polarization and eroding our trust in each other, which is having a corrosive effect on our democracy, jeopardizing public health and destabilizing our economy. This is no longer a political dispute about the truth, but the direct result of unregulated business models that are putting whole communities around the world at risk, and putting democracy around the world in peril.”

In the murky tides of the 2016 elections and the Trump years, there has been a groundswell of interest in fighting disinformation, on both the grassroots level and in the hands of billionaire funders like Hoffman and Soros. That interest has led in turn to the creation of what journalist Joe Bernstein described in Harper’s as Big Disinfo, which has, he wrote, “​​found energetic support from the highest echelons of the American political center.” 

Indeed, fighting disinformation—a worthy goal that journalists, researchers and community activists have poured time and effort into since well before 2016—has become a bit of a cause celebre among the politically connected glitterati, the Free Tibet of the mid- and post-Trump eras. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer founded USA Facts, which pledged to fight misinformation on a variety of issues, in 2020, while Craigslist founder Craig Newmark has poured millions more into funding journalism efforts on the same issue.

Supposed disinformation-fighting intelligence tools have also been extremely well-funded: Starting in 2018, VC-backed anti-disinformation startups were springing up like mushrooms after the rain, pledging to rid the internet of fake news. Some of them had rather curious ways of doing so: One, for instance, claimed it would remove bias from news coverage by having an AI program write the articles. The anti-disinformation gold rush has not showed much sign of slowing down. Last month, Blackbird AI raised $10 million in Series A funding to launch the latest round of software it markets as “defending authenticity” of companies against attempted manipulation and disinformation.  

Into this crowded market comes Good Information, uniquely hampered from the start by its background. The creation of an anti-disinformation entity with such murky political ties—and, ironically, with funding from Soros, a central figure in a variety of unfounded right-wing conspiracy theories—is almost certainly not going to do anyone any good. It could even create future harm: more grist for the conspiracy mill, more uncertainty about which sources of information are good or accurate or worth trusting. On Twitter, McGowan sounded a sunny note, dismissing criticism of Good Information’s premise as “disinformation” in itself. 

“If I ever questioned them, the amount of disinformation in my replies on this site has really validated my professional plans!” she wrote. 

According to McGowan, the first step for Good Information will be to “raise more awareness” of disinformation before tackling concrete next steps. She also pledged, per Axios, that the organization would “make investments in entities across the political spectrum so long as their editorial standards support fact-based information.” Whose facts, of course, still remains to be seen.

This story has been updated to note that Reid Hoffman’s funding was used, unbeknowst to him, to fund electoral disinformation in the 2017 Alabama Senate special election.

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