A for-profit media company funded by major Democratic donors Reid Hoffman and Laurene Powell Jobs has created hundreds of millions of impressions on voters in key House races through Facebook ads disguised as local news articles, according to a review of financial records.
According to Facebook’s ad library, Courier Newsroom — the subject of an FEC complaint filed in September — has spent over $2.1 million on ads since its founding last August. The amount is more than double what the National Republican Congressional Committee has spent on Facebook ads over the last two years, and even outweighs what the official Super PAC of House Republicans, the Congressional Leadership Fund, has spent on Facebook ads since May 2018.
Courier is owned by the digital political nonprofit ACRONYM, which was founded by activist Tara McGowan and operates as an umbrella organization, with seven uniquely branded websites dedicated to battleground states Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
A National Review analysis of Courier’s outlays shows that at least 74 percent of the group’s spending has been allocated to boosting vulnerable Democrats competing in 14 competitive House races. As of early September, Courier has paid for 485 ads masquerading as “articles” in these specific races, resulting in a range of at least 149.6 million to 170.5 million impressions on Facebook.
“As far as the spending and the districts that they’re picking, you can tell they were politically motivated,” Caitlin Sutherland, executive director of Americans for Public Trust — the right-leaning watchdog that filed the FEC complaint against Courier — told National Review. “They’re all freshmen Democrats in Trump-won districts. That wasn’t by accident. Again, that shows the political nature of their operation, not the news side of things.”
Some of those Democrats, including Lauren Underwood of Illinois’s 14th Congressional district, Anthony Brindisi of New York’s 22nd, and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia’s 7th, have shared Courier’s laudatory coverage, presenting the partisan content as the product of straight reporting. Courier has also insured that the “articles” are disseminated widely by paying Facebook to promote them to unsuspecting users.
Courier articles are only thinly disguised as journalism and tend to resemble the partisan content developed by PACs and candidates themselves. Take Cindy Axne of Iowa’s 3rd congressional district, for example. On her campaign website, Axne boasts of “working with Republicans to help farmers impacted by the trade war get them the financial help to keep their farms running,” as well as “adding skills training and trade school classes and making it easier for kids to get apprenticeships right out of high school.”
Sure enough, Courier has produced two articles on those exact subjects, spending several thousand dollars to boost both “articles” as ads on Facebook. Similar tactics were deployed to help New Mexico’s Xochitil Torres Small — who benefitted from a Courier “article” promoting bipartisan legislation to improve rural healthcare access — and New Jersey’s Andy Kim, whose support of his district’s military joint base was featured by Courier.
“Courier Newsroom, which is funded by a host of liberal billionaire donors, is the poster child for House Democrats’ complete and total hypocrisy when it comes to dark money and fake news,” NRCC spokesman Michael McAdams said in a statement to National Review.
As a media outlet, Courier bills itself as a replacement for local news. “We need to grow sustainable infrastructure to support local reporting that holds a mirror to our democracy and all of its participants,” Courier editor-in-chief and Vice News alum Lindsay Schrupp wrote in letter explaining the operation’s purportedly journalistic mission.
But the outlet has faced scrutiny since its launch, largely due to its tactics: Courier places its content, disguised as “local news,” through Facebook’s ad mechanism, which allows for the group to target select audiences. Both local and national outlets have scrutinized the organization, its mission, and its backers in recent months, and ethicists are concerned about what Courier’s existence means for the future of political media writ large.
“These political websites masquerading as independent local news sites are designed to fool people into thinking they’re getting news, not a partisan take on the news,” Gordon Crovitz, co-CEO of nonpartisan media watchdog NewsGuard, told National Review. “The secretive funding mechanisms and failure to disclose who’s in control should be a clear sign to donors that is a corruption of journalism.”
After this article’s publication, Schrupp sent a statement to National Review to push back on Courier’s characterization.
“While Courier Newsroom is funded, in part, by ACRONYM, a progressive non-profit organization, its news operation is independent. In other words, there is a church and state separation between our backers and our editorial operation, which adheres to strict journalistic ethics and standards,” Schrupp said.
Schrupp also did not contest that Courier places its stories within ads on Facebook, adding that, despite her role, she has “no say in our advertising.”
“Courier does advertise on Facebook, mostly to build an audience on the platform where many increasingly get their news. We also promote our fact-based journalism on Facebook out of necessity since that platform has arbitrarily limited our reach because of our arm’s-length association with ACRONYM,” Schrupp explained.
Last month, the Federal Election Commission received a complaint that Courier was covertly operating as a political organization, citing an internal ACRONYM memo drafted from McGowan in June 2019.
“Content designed to drive strategic narratives to key audiences will be delivered on a drip over time, reaching voters through targeted ads and boosted posts across Facebook,” the memo states, describing a “rapid build plan” for an “ACRONYM News Corp.”
“The data collected from this network also allows ad programs to be continuously optimized to increase reach, engagement, and persuasive lift among these audiences,” it continues, detailing ACRONYM’s experience in targeted voter campaigns. “One of the biggest lessons we learned through these programs was how much more effective boosting and targeting owned media and news content online was over pre-produced ‘ads’ at influencing a voter’s support for or against a candidate or issue.”
It’s unclear if Courier is a direct offshoot of McGowan’s original vision for an “ACRONYM News Corp.” But the memo concludes by saying the project aimed to raise $24.9 million by the end of 2019’s fourth quarter, and a Bloomberg profile of Courier last November revealed that McGowan was raising “$25 million from a host of wealthy liberals” to fund the project. The memo also reveals a plan to establish a media presence in the same seven states that Courier currently covers.
Perhaps the most complicated question, and the impetus for the FEC complaint, is who actually backs Courier. On an ACRONYM podcast last December, McGowan claimed that Courier’s “progressive bend” stemmed from its “progressive investors.”
“We are transparent about our affiliation,” she said.
ACRONYM’s most recent publicly available Form 990 shows that as of April 30, 2019, the non-profit completely owned Courier Newsroom. But Courier’s website now states that it is “owned by the non-profit ACRONYM and other private investors,” without making clear who those investors are. Courier did not respond to a request for comment on their backers.
Several clues point to Hoffman, the founder of Linkedin and a recently-engaged Democrat mega-donor, and Powell Jobs, a fellow Democrat donor who also owns The Atlantic.
FEC records show that Hoffman’s personal contributions overlap perfectly with the races that Courier has covered. Hoffman has contributed at least $67,200 directly to the campaigns of all 14 House Democrats that Courier has boosted, including ten donations of the maximum $5,600 allowed to a candidate in a single cycle. For her part, Powell Jobs has personally contributed at least $59,200 to seven of the candidates. There are seven races where both Jobs and Hoffman overlap with Courier: Antonio Delgado of New York’s 19th; Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd; Kim; Max Rose of New York’s 11th; Spanberger; Torres Small; and Underwood.
Several outlets have reported that Hoffman and Powell Jobs are some of McGowan’s most prominent financial backers, with Recode reporting last month that Hoffman has given $10 million to ACRONYM. Since Trump’s election, the tech billionaire has gotten heavily involved in politics, starting his own organizations and donating millions to progressive causes, but has been scrutinized for aggressive tactics. Hoffman publicly apologized after funding a digital effort in the 2018 Alabama Senate race that faked Russian troll support for Roy Moore.
“I categorically disavow the use of misinformation to sway an election,” Hoffman said in a December 2018 statement following news of the campaign. “I would not have knowingly funded a project planning to use such tactics and would have refused to invest in any organization that I knew might conduct such a project.”
But Hoffman has backed so-called “pink slime” news sites before. Heading into the 2018 midterms, Hoffman provided funding for a digital advertising firm called MotiveAI, which in turn backed an organization called News for Democracy that was created with a mission similar to Courier’s — creating “news outlets” that could run ads on Facebook designed to target certain campaigns. Hoffman’s chief political adviser, Dmitri Mehlhorn, served as a board member of News for Democracy, but its aggressive tactics eventually drew an investigation from Facebook over potential violations of its advertising policy.
In response to the scrutiny, MotiveAI said publicly that it was changing its model. But it appears Hoffman and Mehlhorn, who did not return requests for comment, are continuing their initiatives. In May, Recode reported that Mehlhorn circulated a memo to donors in April 2020 that outlined a plan for “building trusted media channels with peer-to-peer elements” and “content that has a journalistic flavor.”
While much has been made of foreign interference in the 2020 elections, Facebook has taken recent steps to crack down on domestic influence campaigns: Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher told reporters on Thursday that “domestic actors understand the political actions in their country the best and have a strong motivation to want to change that discussion.” The platform also instituted a new policy in August that excluded companies like Courier from the Facebook news tab, drawing public condemnation from McGowan.
However, the outfit is still allowed to register as a news page and buy ads, and Facebook’s close ties to ACRONYM raise questions whether Courier will ever be fully curtailed. Facebook chief product officer Chris Cox — “widely considered to be the most likely candidate to become CEO” if Mark Zuckerberg ever steps down — served as an adviser to ACRONYM during his time away from the company.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated with a comment from Courier.