Tara McGowan should be celebrating.
Acronym, her three-year-old political outfit, placed a $100 million bet on a digital-first campaign aimed at convincing millions of Americans to vote against Donald Trump, and it appeared to pay off.
Still, when we spoke in a wide-ranging conversation about Acronym’s work in 2020 and beyond, the 34-year-old veteran of Democratic campaigns sounded nervous. Trump wasn’t the Democrats’ only opponent: They also faced an unprecedented hurricane of right-wing disinformation that wreaked far more damage than the Kremlin ever could. That Trump won more votes than any incumbent president, and that Republicans succeeded in so many down-ballot races, represents one challenge for Democrats; that Trump hasn’t quite acknowledged his defeat and keeps harping on conspiracy theories represents a bigger one.
These are different problems from Acronym’s original focus. Early on, McGowan had raised the alarm about a Republican “death star” of data and ads, and more than $1 billion in Trump campaign funds—all operating in lockstep with a powerful right-wing media apparatus. To combat it, she raised $100 million from Hollywood and Silicon Valley megadonors, including Reid Hoffman, cofounder of LinkedIn, and Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’s widow and the majority owner of The Atlantic. She built a strong team of digital operatives, many of them ex-Facebookers, tasked with bombarding key voters in battleground states with a virtuous circle of microtargeted ads, a monster data machine, and its own network of partisan news sites.
Between Acronym’s work and a revamped Democratic data sharing operation, McGowan says the left once again has the digital advantage. “I believe that we definitely closed the gap, and started to leapfrog where Republicans are in terms of digital innovation and infrastructure and investments this cycle.”
But the medium for Acronym’s success is also part of the problem, McGowan says. For someone who oversaw the left’s biggest Facebook ad blitz yet, using heaps of Big Tech cash, she has surprisingly little nice to say about the platforms. Now, after helping to accelerate right-wing falsehoods, Facebook and Google are making the problem even worse, she says: The platforms’ new indefinite bans on political ads could give a leg up to wealthier incumbent candidates, who can more easily buy TV spots. But they hurt Democrats in other ways, too: McGowan says the left doesn’t have the same kind of partisan media infrastructure as the right, which can use organic posts on Facebook and Google to circumvent ad bans.
McGowan knows the damage that partisan misinformation can do. After a voter tabulation app made by a for-profit spin-off of Acronym failed disastrously during last year’s Iowa caucus, she became the target of a few conspiracy theories herself. (The startup’s name, Shadow Inc., didn’t help.) The incident brought intense scrutiny to Acronym, and its associated super PAC, Pacronym, spooked some donors and fed a burning skepticism about its venture-backed, Silicon Valley-style approach to progressive politics.
McGowan was also accused of profiting from her consulting firm, Lockwood Strategies, which has worked for Acronym, and of dabbling in partisan news through another venture: Courier Newsroom, a network of news sites promoted through Facebook and funded in part by the nonprofit.
Courier’s sites—one for each of six key swing states, plus The Americano, targeted at Latino audiences—do not publish false content, but their funding has raised legitimate concerns. Critics called it a clandestine political operation masquerading as local news; fact-checkers worried about transparency and largely positive content about Democratic candidates; one watchdog group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. McGowan, a former journalist, defended the sites as a weapon for cutting through the smog of right-wing misinformation.
It’s an idea that will outlive Courier, despite the criticism, and whatever happens to it next. McGowan isn’t saying what that is exactly, but she’s clear that Acronym’s billionaire-funded ad spree wasn’t meant to last far past the election. (The non-profit is still spending at least $1 million on digital ads to help Democrats win Georgia’s two Senate seats in January’s runoff election.) Last month, Hoffman said that another investment, Alloy, a high-profile progressive startup that ruffled party feathers, would shut down, noting that its work was done. But McGowan is determined to see Acronym’s lessons—and data—live on. And if progressives want to keep winning in an increasingly noisy landscape, she says projects like Courier are going to be essential.
In the political and information wars, you can’t rely on somebody else to do your bidding for you.”
“Whether people love it or hate it, the mainstream media is not in a position, especially given their ethos and their kind of institutional existence, frankly, to really counter the spread of disinformation in all of its forms online,” she says. “And as has always been the case in the political and information wars, you can’t rely on somebody else to do your bidding for you.”
While McGowan acknowledges her style has been controversial, and admits that funding Courier with political money is problematic, she’s not apologizing. The political landscape is uglier than ever, “but until we are able to overturn Citizens United,” which protects dark money spending, “that is the landscape that we need to operate within,” she says. “I have no problem operating within it to help Democrats get in a position of power to be able to change that.”
Below is a version of our conversation about what she’s learned, what’s next, and her hope for what she calls “a counter-media infrastructure on the left” to act as a bulwark against Fox News and the entire right-wing media apparatus. It’s been edited for length and clarity.
Acronym’s Facebook ads blitz and the election
Fast Company: What impact do you believe Acronym had on the election?
Tara McGowan: It is so difficult to be able to directly connect any work in an election to an outcome. And anyone who tells you that their thing was the thing that won whatever election or electoral vote, they’re full of it. Every single effort and dollar mattered, clearly, because of the margins in this election.
The way that I think about our impact on people, one, is truly the thought leadership and the precedent we set and the playbook we deployed that was emulated by other campaigns and organizations. Two, we were looking for the spaces where there were less diminishing returns. Georgia didn’t turn blue because we spent nearly $3 million and helped register and mobilize first-time voters there. That played a role, but Georgia turned blue because of long, hard-fought work on the ground by organizations and leaders that have been in these communities and working on this for years. We helped provide some narrative cover for some of those communities, but we did not turn Georgia blue, and we would never take credit for that.
But it was additive. Was focusing on Georgia a smarter decision than pouring 3 extra million dollars into a state like Pennsylvania? Yeah, I think it was. We were the largest spender in Arizona [apart from the Biden and Trump campaigns], and did not spend a dollar on persuasion or mobilization in Florida. That was another smart bet. It was not the bet of every other organization. Where we can help others be smarter about their tactics—that’s where we want to play and where we feel like we have the most impact.
All in we spent over $2.7 million to bolster efforts on the ground to expand the electorate + drive turnout in GA- more than any other national outside group????By E Day, we had already seen 745,000 of the voters our programs reached cast an early ballot ????????????https://t.co/X3NmC8DPxs
— Tara McGowan (@taraemcg) November 20, 2020
FC: Acronym has a formidable data machine and a dream team of data scientists. One staffer, James Barnes, a former Facebook ad expert who was embedded alongside Cambridge Analytica in Trump’s last campaign, described an effort that was light years ahead of 2016. In terms of reaching critical voters, what did you do right?
TM: It’s not a targeting problem. We built our own universe based on our own survey research and data analytics, data science, and modeling, based on political knowledge and education level. We placed the right bets, informed by what was missed in ’16. We chose an expansion of states in addition to the blue wall, if you will. And if we didn’t win in Arizona and Georgia, Trump would have been much more comfortable, and possibly terrifyingly effective, at stealing this election by narrow margins in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
So we placed the right bets when it came to Facebook, but also on the audience: We knew that education level was a huge miss in 2016 by pollsters and campaigns and organizations alike in terms of understanding the sentiment of Americans, and certainly in Trump’s rise in support.
We took that even a step farther in including “political knowledge.” Frankly, the majority of Americans would be classified as low political knowledge. We have a huge civics deficit in America. But you can identify who these Americans are because there are so many of them, and you can reach them where they get their information. The challenge is, how do you engage them if they’re not active consumers or hungry on their own?
FC: You can write all the news you want, but how does it get to them?
TM: Yeah. And I think what we were really surprised to find was actually that they did move when we delivered them trusted news. My hypothesis would be that there is great mistrust for traditional media, which we know is true among Trump’s base, which is 72.3 million people in this country. But what we did find, through boosted news, through our testing, was that messengers matter. By delivering news from conservative sources, voices like Tucker Carlson—even if we were targeting likely Democrats—it created more trust, right? They were like, “Oh, if somebody who always supports Trump is saying this critical thing of Trump, it must be true.”
FC: Which says a lot about trust more generally.
TM: And I think trust is everything. And this is the story of this election, and this is the story of America right now: Trust is hanging by a thread, and without trust, what do we have? And that is very intentional, the deterioration of trust by the right, and by Trump, and we see this all across the world.
Trust is hanging by a thread, and without trust, what do we have?”
In order to really preserve and strengthen our democracy, regardless of your political partisanship or ideology, it relies on us rebuilding trust. And that is about finding these opportunities and these windows and these messengers. Who is influential to different audiences? And that comes down to influencer marketing. It comes down to the sources that make people be like, “Huh, okay, that must be true then.”
And that also gets to a very high-level theory I have, which is that political advertising is dead. Anything that feels partisan has backlash, because we are so hyperpolarized in this country right now that you’ve got to find neutral and acceptable messengers from the communities that you are reaching. And that is true across the board, whether you’re talking about a Black woman in Wisconsin or you’re talking about a white non-college educated 19-year-old male in Pennsylvania.
FC: How do you plan to continue doing that?
TM: I’m very outspoken about the fact that I think a counter-media infrastructure on the left is mission-critical. Progressives need to be able to drive their narratives and their facts and their stories and their values to Americans where they get their information. They cannot rely on the existing media ecosystem to do that for them. And they, frankly, have relied on the existing media to do that, which is clearly insufficient.
That does not mean creating your own infrastructure to gaslight Americans the way the right has done. We can do it and we can win on facts and values. It’s just a market problem, not a moral dilemma: How do you get paid for that?
Finding new business models and networks
FC: Last year, you founded Courier Newsroom as a spin-off of Acronym, with the aim of building trust in media through local reporting. But is the goal of building trust at odds with building a network of news sites owned by a partisan group funded by dark money? I mean, were you surprised by the reaction that Courier received at the beginning from the left and the right?
TM: I will say I was not surprised about the reaction but I underestimated how fierce it would be, and I think that is for a few different reasons. One, I certainly don’t think it would have been as severe had the Iowa caucus situation not unfolded. We were under attack on all sides. There were conspiracy theories about myself personally, and the organization, flowing everywhere on the internet, and it just created interest. And so we were stuck on the defensive in that moment and that hurt Courier, certainly.
I am obviously somebody who is very willing to take a lot of risks and say unpopular things.”
And the other thing that I’ve reflected on a lot is that I am obviously somebody who is very willing to take a lot of risks and say unpopular things and do things that others might not agree with morally, but that I believe are effective and critical to this work. You can do both overtly political work and invest in media, but I understand why that has such a bad rap and makes a lot of people uncomfortable. That is so important, because if you cannot build trust with an audience then you can’t do anything else you set out to do.
I think that there is mistrust on all sides of the political spectrum. That mistrust is very fair, because we should not have unlimited dark money influencing our politics. But we do. In order for Courier to be really successful, it is very important that over time it is not affiliated with a political organization or entity. We haven’t made any decisions related to that yet, but I think that there is a lot of fair criticism that we are reflecting on and thinking about.
The worst part is that the fair criticism related to the relationship between [the super PAC] investor and Courier unfortunately has bled into very unfair and misinformed criticism about how Courier operates. That’s really deeply unfair to the journalists who have incredible integrity, fact-check every piece of reporting that they put into the world, and believe deeply in the work that they do and the work of democracy. And so that’s where I think it’s really important that changes are made, to give them the ability to keep doing what they are so good at.
With no recourse because Dems have failed to invest in building our own media infrastructure or audience reach not reliant on advertising, + FB’s thumb on the scale, these are the voices driving disinfo narratives to tens of millions of Americans on @Facebook today. And Zuck is???? https://t.co/cPHnyHbVlc
— Tara McGowan (@taraemcg) November 11, 2020
FC: What does a revamped version of Courier look like?
TM: We need new business models. We need investors willing to take more risks. I think that’s the other problem. I certainly wouldn’t have invested in a local news network if there were models that I was seeing start to gain traction and success at covering that territory and countering disinformation at the local level. I’m just not somebody who’s willing to twiddle my thumbs and watch democracy die in the meantime if there are short-term solutions that can be deployed at scale.
I’m just not somebody who’s willing to twiddle my thumbs and watch democracy die.”
Now, more factual information has gotten out about Courier. And when you look at the content and the reporting, it stands on its own. And I think the more that people see that and have a better understanding of the model and its integrity, the more copycats I hope will pop up, and the more competitive that marketplace will become. And that’s a really good thing. No one company or organization is going to solve these huge structural problems. And so I welcome that and I hope that does start to occur.
FC: What reaction do you get these days to your approach, from investors and others?
TM: I certainly think that if there was any question about the real-world impacts of the right-wing media infrastructure in 2016, there are very few today. Which gives me a sense of hope, because once people acknowledge the problem, we can really get to the business of solving it. And I think that my team and I were very lonely in calling out that problem in certain spaces for the past four years. And I feel less lonely today.
That said, I think people who are more risk-averse are very turned off by the backlash that [Courier] has received. And that’s troubling to me, because we need more organizations like Acronym, and more people like me who are willing to take these risks, step up to the plate, and have investors do the same. And I hope that there are more like us.
Lessons for 2022: Trusted information, relational organizing, less Facebook
FC: How does a counter-media infrastructure fit alongside the existing media? Your team has described the persuasive impact of “boosted news” among certain audiences—like a Tucker Carlson clip critical of Trump targeted at possible Trump voters. If boosted news stories from trusted sources were among your most powerful weapons this campaign season, why build another media network?
TM: You’re absolutely right. One of our tactics and innovations in our programs at Acronym this cycle was simply identifying that boosting third-party news on Facebook was effective at shifting voters’ opinions and support away from Trump. And that is something that is broadly applicable. What we learned is the simple fact that the majority of Americans do not tune in to mainstream media or have access to local news and information. And so when they are delivered it on the news feeds and platforms where they spend their time, they pay attention to it. And so if mainstream media outlets at the national or state level were savvier about marketing their news content to audiences who live in these narrative deserts and are being inundated with disinformation, they would be more effectively countering it, and we wouldn’t need to build our own full infrastructure to do that.
Creating organizational networks . . . is an untapped resource and solution for the disinformation epidemic.”
And [doing that is] insanely expensive. I mean, since starting the organization, we’ve raised close to $100 million and spent nearly every dollar of it. That’s not sustainable. I also think creating organizational networks that enable people to share trusted news and information with the people in their life is an untapped resource and solution for the disinformation epidemic. What I mean by that is pairing trusted news and information with relational organizing. The majority of Americans trust the people in their lives more than any other source of information. And so if we can arm people who are already media literate—regardless of what your ideology or your politics are—to understand the value and impact of sharing and informing the people in their lives with trusted information, that would also be amazing.
That’s an area I’m really interested in, and the team is really interested in exploring more: How do you not rely on any singular platform [like Facebook], but take media advertising dollars and budget and scale the spread of fact-based information and narrative?
— ACRONYM (@anotheracronym) November 11, 2020
FC: You and other Democratic operatives have repeatedly and loudly taken Facebook to task for accelerating misinformation and, more recently, for prohibiting political ads. You argue that the ban would disadvantage progressive candidates and do nothing to stop the organic spread of misinformation on its platforms. But you also have strong ties to Facebook: Acronym is staffed by a number of former Facebook employees, and one of its advisers is David Plouffe, the ex-Obama campaign guru who is now a strategist for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. How has Facebook responded to your criticisms?
TM: We can guess based on what we see currently in terms of their posture and positioning that Facebook has not come to the conclusion that they were wrong about anything. So I don’t foresee there being really big structural or cultural or tonal changes. I do think that it is very possible that they eliminate political ads because of the grief that the debate has given them. And that would be really problematic, but it also reinforces a bigger point, which is that no organization, campaign, or strategy should ever be reliant on one platform.
We built a playbook that was very heavily reliant in many ways on Facebook, and that was the right thing to do for this election, but that is not sustainable, nor should it be. The focus now is how do we continue to reach people where they are and penetrate those echo chambers with facts and truth.
And the mission remains, it’s just the landscape will shift, with social media platforms coming on the market like Parler and media companies like Newsmax and OANN. These media ecosystems are changing, and so are our methods and our strategy. Our tactics need to be able to reach people where they are.
It’s not just, how do we get smart people meeting on the platforms that exist now. What are the platforms that need to exist? What is the media literacy that needs to exist? These are huge questions, and certainly not ones a scrappy, albeit very well-resourced in this election cycle, nonprofit can solve on its own.