Things That Make Me Go, Hmmmm…

Wasteful TV ads, wacky third party plans, disgusting tech-politics deals, dubious media start-ups, melting #MeToo orgs, monstrous CIA plans, modernizing Congress and post-populism prognostications...

—Veteran Democratic campaign consultant Hal Malchow has a smart piece in The Hill arguing that most of the money being spent in electoral politics aiming to convince voters to support particular candidates is totally wasted. Recent polling shows that 90% of voters are choosing candidates based on their party, and ticket splitting or crossover voting has dropped substantially in the last twenty years. He writes, “If 90 percent of voters are choosing parties rather than candidates, why are we spending all of our advertising dollars to distinguish candidates? Convincing a voter to cast a ballot for a candidate is a one-time decision affecting one election contest in one year. Getting a voter to move party allegiance might be a hundred times more valuable.” He also notes that Americans’ attitudes toward both major parties have shifted in a noticeably Democratic direction since the beginning of 2021, “a shift that has been unaided by Democratic efforts in any way.” He concludes, “While voters are choosing parties, we are telling them about candidates. The reckless behavior of the Republican Party is a historic opportunity to change voter allegiances — but in the midst of this change, the Democratic Party has not responded at all.”

—Speaking of which, today is National Voter Registration Day.

—Speaking of political parties, Andrew Yang’s new third party is going to be called the Forward Party. The website at ForwardParty.com isn’t live yet, though his book Forward is. From what I’ve read, he’s not (yet?) talking about the Forward Party behaving like an actual political party that seeks ballot access and runs candidates. Instead, he wants it to be a vehicle for six key principles: 1) ranked-choice voting and open primaries; 2) fact-based governance; 3) human-centered capitalism; 4) effective and modern government; 5) universal basic income; and 6) grace and tolerance. Winning ranked-choice voting and open primaries would go a long way toward blowing up the two-party duopoly, which would be great, but it’s far from clear how Yang intends to convert vague expressions of political support into power. His theory of change reminds me a bit of the South Park gnomes plan to profit from collecting underpants. Step one: Create a new party. Step two: ?? Step three: Profit.

—This speaks for itself: “In 2019, while on a trip to Washington to answer questions from Congress about his digital currency, [Peter] Thiel joined [Mark] Zuckerberg, Jared Kushner, [President] Trump, and their spouses at the White House. The specifics of the discussion were secret — but, as I report in my book, Thiel later told a confidant that Zuckerberg came to an understanding with Kushner during the meal. Facebook, he promised, would continue to avoid fact-checking po­litical speech — thus allowing the Trump campaign to claim whatever it wanted. If the company followed through on that promise, the Trump administration would lay off on any heavy-handed regulations. After the dinner, Zuckerberg took a hands-off approach to conservative sites.” That’s Max Chafkin in New York Magazine, from an excerpt drawn from his new book The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power.

—Is Ozy Media Another Theranos? Ben Smith’s Monday column in The New York Times about Ozy, a digital media startup founded by Carlos Watson and Samir Rao in 2013, has a lot of people scratching their heads. That’s because Smith discovered that on a recent conference call with Goldman Sachs’ asset management division, which was considering a $40 million investment in the company, Rao apparently impersonated a YouTube executive there to tell the investors how well Ozy was doing on YouTube. The subterfuge was managed by asking the call participants to switch from Zoom to phone, making it impossible for the Goldman Sachs team to see the person speaking; their suspicions rose when the voice they were hearing sounded digitally altered.

Smith situates that event, which Watson has apologized for and blamed on a “mental health crisis” experienced by his partner Rao, in a larger context, writing that, “Even in an industry known for smoke and mirrors, Ozy has for years raised eyebrows over its claims about its audience size.” In a 2019 news release it claimed 50 million unique monthly users. Comscore puts its monthly reach at a tiny fraction of that, perhaps 250,000-300,000. One veteran journalist, Eugene Robinson, spent years with the company but now tells Smith he believes it is a “Potemkin village.”

Ozy also has a weird business model for a media entity claiming to do cutting edge journalism. It produces a lot of sponsored content for corporations and buys traffic to make its numbers look good. Back in December 2017, Craig Silverman reported for BuzzFeed News about a series of pieces Ozy did with JPMorgan Chase about how companies and entrepreneurs are a positive force in their communities. Silverman wrote that “the vast majority of traffic to the articles was in fact fraudulent” and based on “traffic that was purchased and delivered via a system that automatically loads specific webpages and redirects traffic between participating websites to quickly rack up views without any human action.”

Here’s why the Ozy story is reminiscent of the Theranos meltdown: it’s another ambitious start-up with a charismatic founder breaking the white male hold on an industry who seems to have gotten far on who he knows and has been able to inveigle rather than what his company actually does. Smith reports that Watson, the son of a Jamaican father and African-American mother, got Ozy going with the help of Laurene Powell Jobs, San Francisco tech VC Ron Conway, Google chief counsel David Drummond (who later left the company under a cloud over inappropriate relations with subordinates) and, curiously, The Ford Foundation, which has given it nearly $2 million in grants.

The question, as usual, is who does due diligence on these high-flying startups? And, when foundations ask prospective grantees for metrics, who checks their claims? Ford’s reason for supporting Ozy, according to Ford president Darren Walker, was its desire to support a minority-led company. But why this one? Walker told Smith in an email he had confidence in Ozy, writing, “We need new media companies to challenge the status quo, shake things up, and go deep on the issues that matter most,” he said. I wouldn’t disagree with that sentiment, though I can’t think of a single story Ozy has done that has shaken things up. Walker also said, “In an increasingly diverse world, it’s no coincidence that a company with co-founders of Black and Indian descent would be so successful.” Very curious. Perhaps Walker has data showing that Ozy is actually reaching a huge audience, data that Smith couldn’t find or know about.

Ozy co-founder Carlos Watson defended himself to his staff, charging that Smith has a conflict of interest because he was actively involved between August 2019 and January 2020 in an effort by BuzzFeed to purchase Ozy Media. That seems relevant and Smith should have been more forthright about the connection. Watson also claims that the company’s true reach is vastly understated by Comscore data, pointing to its 26 million monthly email subscribers and equivalent numbers of views and listens to its videos and podcasts. Since those self-reported numbers are inherently shaky, there’s not much one can do with them.

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—According to this story by Yahoo News’ Zach Dorfman, Sean Naylor and Michael Isikoff, in 2017 top Trump administration officials led by then CIA director Mike Pompeo “plotted” to kidnap or even kill WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. White House lawyers apparently blocked any such action. The story is significant, in my opinion, for two reasons. First, because it reveals that the CIA had discovered that Russian intelligence was planning to sneak Assange out of his refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy in London and take him to Moscow. If that isn’t confirmation of Assange’s collusion with Russia, I don’t know what is. And second, and very worrisome for anyone who practices journalism, top US intelligence officials sought to redefine WikiLeaks and some of its one-time partners, like journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentarian Laura Poitras, as “information brokers” and thus not subject to any First Amendment protections. Poitras says this is “bone-chilling and a threat to journalists worldwide.” She’s right.

—Lili Loofbourow’s story in Slate about the implosion of Time’s Up, a high-powered advocacy organization that charged onto the scene in the wake of the #MeToo movement to support victims of sexual harassment and assault, is a must-read. Loofbourow details a crazy quilt of grifting and favoritism, starting with its CEO Tina Tchen, who had previously been First Lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff. She writes, “Tchen had formerly worked with Uber, for instance, and although she recused herself from Time’s Up projects involving any companies she had done consulting work for, when a report came out on sexual assaults in Uber cars, staff were instructed to praise the company for its transparency. There was enough internal pushback that no such statement was made, and Tchen has denied participating in those discussions, but many felt that the culture among senior leadership was frequently more conciliatory than confrontational toward parties that arguably deserved scrutiny or condemnation. … It also praised Michael Bloomberg for releasing certain employees from nondisclosure agreements (even though the Daily Beast reported that staff were instructed not to tweet support of Elizabeth Warren after she criticized Michael Bloomberg’s use of them in a debate—and this from an organization that had named the elimination of NDAs as one of its missions).”

—On Twitter, Alec Karakatsanis of Civil Rights Corps is asking why the New York Times gave prominent space to a former CIA officer named Jeff Asher to claim, with dubious basis, that murder rates rose in 2020 because police pulled back due to public criticism. Asher, he notes, went from the CIA to the New Orleans Police Department, where he worked closely with Palantir, the creepy data company backed by Peter Thiel, to identify likely shooters and victims from their social media profiles. (Palantir got the New Orleans contract with the help of Democratic consultant James Carville, who has been a paid adviser to the company for at least a decade. Who knew?)

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This is Civic Tech

—Big kudos to Lorelei Kelly for the release of Modernizing Congress: Bringing Democracy into the 21st Century, her new report for the Beeck Center at Georgetown University. She writes, “Though the U.S. Congress is often perceived as the most powerful national assembly in the world, its infrastructure is crumbling. As a system it is knowledge incapacitated, physically disconnected and technologically obsolete. This modernity gap is not just a challenge for governing; it is a threat to the cohesion of our society and the ability of Congress to respond to today’s challenges.” The good news, she reports, is that congressional staff—which is often younger and more tech savvy—is hungry for solutions, like “a modern and trustworthy knowledge-sharing system.”

—Say hello to the Center for Transformational Change, a new start-up being launched tomorrow by my friend Lina Srivastava, a veteran organizer and strategist at the intersection of rights, global development and narrative strategy.

—After years of development and several pivots, email petition giant Change.org is now a full-fledged nonprofit public benefit corporation (befitting its .org name) owned by the Change.org Foundation. Founder Ben Rattray is stepping over to executive chair, while longtime Change chief product officer Nick Allardice will become Change.org’s CEO, while Preethi Herman will continue to serve as its executive director. Change.org’s investors are donating their equity to the nonprofit, which is in the process of expanding.

—Kudos to Code for America for coming to an agreement that will lead to the voluntary recognition of a staff union, CfA Workers United, by late October.

—Apple Mail is changing how it handles emails, and Blue State Digital has a handy explainer for what that means for organizations that need to track their open rates. (Roughly 30% of email subscribers use Mail.)

—Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Christie George and Taren Steinbrickener-Kauffman explore how mergers and acquisitions have sometimes strengthened non-profits and advocacy organizations, pointing to examples like the merger of Flippable and Swing Left, Pantsuit Nation and Supermajority, and DailyAction and MoveOn.

—Congrats to Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices, author of Consent of the Networked, and founding director of Ranking Digital Rights, who has joined the Wikimedia Foundation as its first Vice President for Global Advocacy.

—Attend: The Code for All Summit is currently underway and anyone interested in civic tech can attend its free sessions.

Deep Thoughts

My friend and former PDF co-curator Danielle Tomson has a fascinating piece up on Medium on what comes after populism burns out. Her educated guess: “a greater turn towards the spiritual, religious and artistic to find meaning, identity and belonging.” She finds evidence across the political spectrum and even in the seemingly hyper-rational world of cryptocurrency.

[Credit for this week’s newsletter image goes to Doc Searls, who took that photo of Ev Williams in 2007. https://www.flickr.com/photos/docsearls/2108960593/in/photolist-4dmYvx]

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