Courier Newsroom, a "news" site bankrolled by a major Democratic fundraising network, has undertaken a seven-figure ad campaign to push flattering pieces about vulnerable House Democrats, garnering millions of impressions on social media.
The eye-popping number is evidence of a new frontier in political advertising as political organizations operating under the guise of news outlets push content to impressionable swing-state voters.
The candidates Courier boosts on Facebook overlap substantially with the candidates backed by top Democratic donors Laurene Powell Jobs—the billionaire widow of Apple pioneer Steve Jobs—and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman. The so-called newsroom, by pushing pieces that mirror the candidates' own press releases, provides a complementary outlet for Democrats to pursue their political goals.
Courier Newsroom is funded by the left-wing nonprofit ACRONYM, which counts Jobs and Hoffman among its high-profile donors. While Jobs has denied funding Courier Newsroom, her parallel donations make clear that Courier shares the same political goals as ACRONYM’s billionaire donors.
Jobs, worth an estimated $26.8 billion, has emerged as a top Democratic donor and media titan, investing in news outlets from the Atlantic to Axios and Mother Jones. As a donor to ACRONYM, she has effectively blurred the lines between the two.
This election cycle, Courier has boosted nearly a dozen vulnerable Democratic candidates on Facebook, where its posts have reached millions of users, according to Facebook analytics. Those candidates include Democratic Reps. Lauren Underwood (Ill.), Xochitl Torres Small (N.M.), Andy Kim (N.J.), Abigail Spanberger (Va.), Antonio Delgado (N.Y.), Max Rose (N.Y.), and Jared Golden (Maine). Jobs and Hoffman have maxed out to all of those campaigns.
Courier has come under scrutiny in recent months as Facebook seeks to differentiate news outlets from "political persuasion" operations, Courier chief among them. But while a new Facebook policy will exclude Courier articles from Facebook’s newsfeed and require a disclaimer on the ads noting they are paid for by Courier, the group is not required to disclose that it is a Democratic political operation.
Anna Massoglia, a dark money researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics who has written extensively on "fake news" outlets including Courier, said Facebook’s disclosure remains confusing for precisely the voters Courier is targeting.
"There is little to alert the average user that these state-focused outlets are connected to a dark money operation with a political agenda that may color articles they publish," Massoglia told the Washington Free Beacon. "Readers may be unaware they aren't actually homegrown state or local news outlets but are actually part of a bigger network tied to a dark money operation funded by anonymous donors."
Several Democratic political operatives have moved between ACRONYM, Facebook, and Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, including Chris Cox, a onetime ACRONYM adviser who now serves as Facebook’s chief product officer; David Plouffe, a senior adviser to both ACRONYM and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy; and Jeff Zients, a former Facebook board member and current Biden adviser.
Nearly all of the politicians aided by Courier are locked into competitive races, and the outlet operates by pushing its articles in front of persuadable voters on Facebook. The ads are targeted at voters in each politician's district, making it an attractive avenue for donors looking to sway voters.
The operation is beginning to attract the attention of local reporters, too. Maine's Sun Journal reported earlier this month on Courier's efforts to boost Democratic Rep. Jared Golden, writing, "A fake online newspaper that aims to elect Democrats to Congress has spent at least $50,000 this year on social media advertising that promoted its stories touting U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston Democrat who is seeking reelection in a district he narrowly won two years ago."
ACRONYM made national headlines during the Democrats' Iowa caucus: It was the primary investor in the firm that produced a flawed vote-tallying application that made it impossible for the party to determine a winner. ACRONYM president Tara McGowan initially attempted to distance ACRONYM from the firm, and Plouffe, in an MSNBC appearance, denied any knowled
McGowan lashed out at Facebook after it announced it would remove Courier's stories from its news feed. "Facebook classifies right-wing misinformation farms including Daily Caller + Breitbart News as verified news publishers + verified FACT CHECKERS on their platform yet wrote a policy to restrict progressive Courier Newsroom from spreading truth. The double standard is unapologetic," she wrote on Twitter.
The Daily Caller and Breitbart, however, are not linked to political organizations. ACRONYM's sister group, PACRONYM, is a Democratic super PAC funded by the billionaire George Soros, among others. PACRONYM pushes millions to another affiliated organization, Lockwood Strategy, a private digital firm owned by ACRONYM.
Courier has rolled out digital outlets with local reporters in swing states including Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
ACRONYM did not respond to a request for comment.