Ranjan here, talking about information warfare.
I'm obsessed with this whole ACRONYM + Shadow saga. If you are unfamiliar with the story, I’d highly recommend reading this Vox explainer.
The very short recap: ACRONYM is a political nonprofit. Shadow, Inc. is the for-profit company that built the disastrous Iowa Caucus app. There is some connection between the two (which we’ll address). Both organizations represent a wing of Democratic power that is cheering on aggressive digital and information strategies.
I've been worried about the tech-as-a-panacea mentality wreaking havoc on the Democratic party for a while, and this week made me absolutely terrified. Let me explain where that fear began.
REID AND GEORGIA
December 2018. News had just came out that Reid Hoffman had accidentally funded a fake news operation during the Roy Moore special election. The episode raised an incredibly important question: Should the Dems engage in the same (dis)information warfare that Trump is famous for?
I am on the side of "no, they should not" for two reasons.
First, Trump's digital efficacy is not some complicated thing. Psychographic targeting, Russian trolls, and all the other really bad things, are genuinely bad, but at its core, Trump's awfulness is what our social platforms are built for. There's no magic. Trump being Trump is what moves the fastest and farthest. The Democrats can't replicate that. It's the way the platforms work.
The second, and more important reason, is that more noise is not how liberal democracy wins. Peter Pomerantsev’s book, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, was my first clear explanation of how Russian disinformation really works.
It’s not in the lies, it’s in the exhaustion. The danger is we become so overwhelmed that we just give up.
This week, McKay Coppins’ epic piece, The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President, did an incredible job of breaking down the true art of disinformation (please read this over the weekend if you haven’t already). It’s about just flooding us with information, good, bad, truth, lies, until we just can’t reliably process anything. It’s doubt => distrust => despair.
I recently realized how this exhaustion impacts me. I didn’t watch any of the impeachment speeches live. I saw tweets about Schiff, and went back and watched his epic speeches, but I honestly was so exhausted that I barely paid attention as it progressed. This was one of the most important political moments in our lives, and as a lifelong political junkie, I just couldn’t tune in. Even Romney’s speech was the stuff of history books, yet, I feel like I’m glossing over this era, lost in the sea of feeds and notifications.
We’re already fighting off an information flood. If Democrats add to this, it will feel like a tsunami. We’ll be utterly fucked. This type of information warfare only works if the end goal is totalitarianism, and it’s quite effective for that (Coppins’ walks through how the Philippines and Russia have done it incredibly well).
When an industry is in the midst of significant disruption, it’s very easy for someone to credibly walk in and yell "DIGITAL!" and get lots of money. I say this as someone who sells DIGITAL! things, often to clients in industries undergoing transformation.
The combination of Trump being horrible and the aura of digital mastery bestowed upon his team makes for a terrified Democratic party.
And so rushed in the people yelling about having DIGITAL! solutions.
This Vanity Fair piece from April 2019, Reid Hoffman’s Hundred-Million-Dollar Plan to Growth-Hack Democracy, should've at least raised some eyebrows:
The answer, Mehlhorn said, was a political investment company that could mimic the tactics of a Silicon Valley seed fund, allocating small amounts of capital to innumerable founders with crazy ideas, then sitting back to see which ones worked. “There was no risk-capital or growth-capital arm of the resistance, and so that is what we’ve tried to build,” Mehlhorn told me.
“Now, in terms of what that implies, that implies that we are backing founders, so people who we think have big, potentially game-changing ideas.” Even more important, he said, “we are backing founders who we think can create platforms that make the overall ecosystem of American democracy more resilient and resistant to fascism, by empowering people who the fascists are trying to disempower.”
And then things got more and more DIGITAL!
In this November 2019 Bloomberg News piece on Tara McGowan, the founder of ACRONYM, talks about launching a news startup where the objective was to create "local" news sites that pretended to be from specific localities in swing states. The idea is that you target people in key districts with news that looks like its from their town, and then very subtly mobilize them into voting Democrat. You don’t publish straight lies, but you misrepresent the site as being a "local news site."
(Ranjan’s head exploding emoji)
This is exactly my fear. More information that is subtly misleading is the most dangerous thing we can do. I previously wrote how, with the coming flood of AI-generated content, the only glue that will hold this entire information shitshow together is trust. Even if their intentions are good, this feels like one of those situations where water makes a fire worse.
The moment a Courier Newsroom reader finds that site is not actually from the place it says it is, that person is lost, forever. That fundamental trust is broken. Given McGowan is giving long profiles, with glossy photos, and naming all the sites involved rather than leaving them in the shadows, it’s not a stretch to think these sites can all be “unmasked” the moment its convenient.
ALL THE BAD STUFF
The tech utopianism sold by firms like ACRONYM feels much more Softbank-y than anything else. Opaque corporate structures, technology utopianism, slapdash growth hacks, unreasonable expectations, and a reminder that the “move fast and break things” ethos remains worshipped in many corners.
To the bitter end, McGowan continues to disavow a deep connection with Shadow, other than a simple investment. It’s obfuscation via corporate structure. Breaking down the entire ACRONYM - Shadow connection would require an entire newsletter (here’s a New Yorker piece on it), but a few highlights:
ACRONYM is a political non-profit 501c4 that was raising a stated $75 million from donors like Hoffman.
There is also PACRONYM, a SuperPAC that's raising money as a standard PAC.
Lockwood Strategy is a for-profit Delaware C-Corp that is a wholly owned subsidiary of ACRONYM.
Shadow, Inc (the Iowa app makers), according to McGowan, is only invested in by ACRONYM, but they share the same address.
It gets crazier and crazier, with a lot of money flowing back and forth, but my favorite was this 82-tweet thread that gets as granular as can be. Things we learn:
The founder of Shadow was also CTO of ACRONYM:
Elliot Alderson @fs0c131y@nytimes 13/ Gerard has a very good CV. He worked as Senior Product Manager and then Director of Product for the Hillary's campaign. 4 months after they lost, he founded Groundbase https://t.co/gaqxG59ar4
There's a lot of money being moved around, but my favorite here, right below the Dollar Shave Club Founder, is someone who works for "Jewbelong, Inc."
The CEO of Shadow also works for Lockwood Strategy:
Lockwood Strategy registers domains for ACRONYM:
and finally, Courier Newsroom sites tried to shift the blame for the Iowa Caucus debacle (ugh!):
THE PRICE OF INNOVATION
As a generally liberal person, I'm scared about the next 10 months. If I worked in politics, I'd be utterly terrified. But the ACRONYM story is a reminder that technology for technology's sake is not the answer.
Claiming to fight disinformation while adding to the cacophony of information is like Zuck saying he'll solve disinformation with just a little more AI. Before heading into digital battle, we should first get rid of shady funding structures and self-dealing, two challenges in our politics at least on par with digital challenges.
I’ll end with this newsletter with two passages from an Axios interview with McGowan yesterday":
McGowan told Axios the Shadow team "made an enormous mistake that has dire consequences in this election and so we want to own that."
But she stands by Shadow's efforts to help push the Democratic Party to innovate.
"The space was ripe for disruption and innovation. Yet with the ethos of taking great risks means that we can make great mistakes."
The bottom line: McGowan says that she doesn't want this incident to slow investment in new tech and innovation.
"We don't want things like this to discourage people taking risk because the aversion to the risks could be the reason we lose in November."
"It would be a real travesty if an error of this nature told everyone to stop taking risks and doing things differently,” she said. “It’s why we do things differently. Shadow is one piece of the overall structure that we created, but a minor but critical one in this moment.”
This all sounds familiar, right? Justifying execution catastrophe with words like risk and innovation. Implying that, to ask for good, functional tech, is to stand in the way of progress. This is the language of the tech utopianism. They’re the words of the digital grift.