Disinformation Group Demanding Media Transparency Won't Disclose Its Own Donors

The Global Disinformation Index says disclosing its donors would lead to 'harassment'

A redacted document / Getty Images
April 14, 2023

A State Department-funded disinformation group that works to blacklist media outlets for having "opaque ownership structures" is fighting to keep its donors and leaders in the dark, a violation of its own transparency recommendations.

The Global Disinformation Index made the unprecedented move of redacting the name of its largest donor, as well as those of its board members, executives, and accountants, in IRS tax filings for two affiliated nonprofit groups, the Washington Examiner reported. A lawyer for the index said the redactions were necessary because the group's leaders were victims of a "harassment campaign" following reports that the group colluded with advertisers to hurt conservative media organizations.

The Global Disinformation Index's lack of operational and funding transparency could open it up to charges of hypocrisy by Republican lawmakers investigating the State Department for funding the group in 2020 and 2021. The group, which is based in Great Britain but operates American affiliates, published a report in December that penalized news outlets for failing to identify their financial and editorial decision-makers, claiming that "opaque ownership structures" hamper the public's ability to monitor news organizations for editorial and financial conflicts of interest.

According to its own standards, the index's "opaque" funding and leadership structures make it impossible for the public to monitor the organization's potential editorial and financial conflicts of interest.

The Global Disinformation Index also penalized media outlets that don't publicly disclose their revenue sources, saying funding transparency is necessary to "monitor the incentives and conflicts of interest that can arise from opaque revenue sources." Ironically, the AN Foundation, the group's affiliated private charity, omitted from its 2021 tax filing the name of its largest donor who that year gave $115,000 to the group. Private foundations such as the AN Foundation are required to publicly disclose their largest contributors, according to the IRS.

The Global Disinformation Index did not return requests for comment.

A lawyer representing the Global Disinformation Index, the AN Foundation, and the associated Disinformation Index, Inc., cited an obscure federal law allowing nonprofits to withhold information from their Form 990 tax returns if they believe bad actors are engaged in a "coordinated effort to disrupt" their operations.

"The index's personnel and their families have received multiple threats and hacking attacks, including threats of violence against their children," the attorney, Marcus Owens, told the Examiner. "As such, the organization is working [with] appropriate law enforcement authorities, telecommunications, and Internet organizations [and] has appropriately withheld information that could lead to furtherance of this behavior."

But charity experts told the Examiner that the law does not allow the Global Disinformation Index to redact the names of its leaders and funding sources from its Form 990 disclosures.

"This exception does not provide for redactions and would not apply merely because certain board members or staff are individually the target of harassment campaigns unrelated to requests for Forms 990," said nonprofit attorney Jeff Tenenbaum.

Another nonprofit attorney, Alan Dye, highlighted the unprecedented nature of the index's redactions.

"I don't think I've ever seen a 990 that excludes the names of officers and directors," he said. "And I've looked at hundreds."