Elon Musk’s maybe-impending purchase of Twitter is being treated not as a mere business acquisition but as a kind of twilight battle over the fate of the American experiment. Maybe there was a time when hypothetical and probably minor changes to the terms of service of a social networking website could be seen as an eminently survivable event, without any larger implications for long-established rights and customs like free speech. But those days are gone now, as evidenced by yet another high-profile, strong-arm effort by a weirdly open combination of private and public powers acting in unison to taint or scuttle the Twitter sale.
On May 3, a trio of so-called “advocacacy groups” sent a letter to Twitter’s major corporate advertisers, including image-conscious and regulation-sensitive heavyweights like Coca-Cola and Disney, urging them to pull their business from Twitter if Musk proves unwilling to censor speech on the platform to those organizations’ satisfaction. “Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter will further toxify our information ecosystem and be a direct threat to public safety,” began the missive, distributed under the letterhead of Media Matters for America, Accountable Tech, and UltraViolet, and co-signed by another two dozen groups, including the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, and NARAL Pro-Choice America. These groups are promising to mobilize their activists, and whatever other resources they might have, to punish companies that will stick by Twitter if it junks its pre-Musk content moderation regime. The pitch was a simple one: Nice store you got there. It would be a shame if someone threw a rock through your window.
Musk seemed to take the not-so-subtle threats of brand damage and possible federal regulation as a challenge. “Who funds these organizations that want to control your access to information? Let’s investigate …” Musk suggested on Twitter. But while the question showed moxie, its scope was also clearly too limited. Better to ask: What function do these “advocacy groups” serve? And for whom?
Welcome to the world of fully automated political warfare, about everything, all the time.
Media Matters for America, Accountable Tech, and UltraViolet are all led by former senior Democratic staffers in Congress, the executive branch, and major political campaigns. They all receive funding from liberal foundations that donate widely to Democrats, or from advocacy organizations, like labor unions, that are deeply involved in Democratic Party politics. All three are creatures of the broader Democratic Party apparatus. They are the party’s attack arm.
There is nothing automatically wrong with the public-private vertical representing one side of the American political duopoly deciding to treat the takeover of a web platform popular with journalists and other people with master’s degrees as if it’s a high-stakes special election in a purple congressional district. But the letter, and the work of its three main sponsors, still reveals the application of political campaign-type tactics, organization, and rhetoric to an ever-expanding and potentially unlimited variety of contexts. Welcome to the world of fully automated political warfare, about everything, all the time.
The Democratic Party ties of these “advocacy groups” might also show the purpose of their anti-Musk efforts: It’s to remind him that he’s an enemy of the party, which holds a great deal of formal power, including control of Congress and the presidency. The point here is to threaten Twitter’s new owner into “voluntary” compliance with party ideology. So who are these groups threatening to break the windows of Elon Musk’s shiny new acquisition?
Media Matters, the David Brock-led bulwark against Fox News, is by far the best known: The organization launched in 2004 with help from the Center for American Progress, Hillary Clinton, and Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager, John Podesta, and apparently received $1 million from George Soros. With over $14.1 million in revenue reported in 2019, according to their latest available 990, Media Matters represents the mainstream face of center-left advocacy. Former Democratic National Committee Chair and Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez, and former Planned Parenthood chief Cecile Richards, are on the group’s Board of Directors; CEO Angelo Carusone served as “deputy CEO for finance & administration of the 2016 Democratic National Convention.” Several Media Matters staffers are well-known pundits who frequently appear in outlets like MSNBC, further blurring the lines between the Democratic Party’s spin apparatus and organizations that still insist on presenting themselves as “the press.” When Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz needed experts—a noun that’s lost all connection to anything real, and is functionally useless by any careful writer or speaker of English—in order to validate the even more pressing evil of the Libs of TikTok Twitter account, she turned to the folks at Media Matters.
Accountable Tech represents the Democratic Party’s online dark-money operation. Ironically for a group with the word “accountable” in its name, Accountable Tech is a 501(c)(4), meaning it doesn’t have to disclose its donors. No matter: As right-wing “investigative think tank” Capital Research Center discovered, Accountable Tech is one of the Washington, D.C.-registered alternate names of the North Fund, an advocacy group that received $19.3 million in 2020 from something called the Sixteen Thirty Fund—an outfit which The Atlantic described as the “indisputable heavyweight of Democratic dark money.” Sixteen Thirty is in turn one of several opaque and highly capitalized center-left donor organizations under the management of a nonprofit-focused consulting firm called Arabella Advisors. The North Fund paid Arabella $942,000 in fees in 2020, according to that year’s 990. Got that? Clearly “Accountable Tech” is very dedicated to accountability, as are the people who pay its bills.
Accountable Tech appears to exist at the bottom layer of an opaque funding architecture glutted with billions in cash. According to an investigation by a Montana newspaper, which was curious as to what this strange group was doing spending millions of dollars in favor of marijuana legalization in a distant and sparsely populated state, the North Fund’s office in D.C. is an empty Potemkin headquarters managed by a pay-by-the-month, address-for-hire service—this despite raking in some $66.3 million in funding in 2020.
The co-founder and public face of Accountable Tech is Jesse Lehrich, who was the foreign policy spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s defeated 2016 presidential campaign. In July of 2017, Lehrich acknowledged to Business Insider that while working for Clinton, he had “sound[ed] the alarm on these Kremlin connections” tying Moscow to the former secretary of state’s Republican opponent, “and we knew more shoes would drop.” In reality, the alleged links between Donald Trump and Russia that Lehrich peddled to the media turned out to either be trivial or false.
Since Lehrich’s new organization became operational in mid-2020, a majority of the emails it has sent out have been aimed at one company in particular, according to the Archive of Political Emails—Facebook, with subject lines like “26% stock drop for Facebook’s birthday,” and “Congress must investigate Facebook.” Evidently, the reported $400 million that Mark Zuckerberg shelled out to Democratic Party-supported election-related causes, like targeted get-out-the-vote “voter education” and “fair balloting,” was not enough to erase the company’s refusal to kick Trump off the site during the election—which in turn recalled the company’s original sin of allowing itself to be used as a conduit by Vladimir Putin, a being of godlike power, when he mesmerized helpless and stupid American voters into electing Trump in 2016. Whatever happened, these folks argue, Trumpian fascism was clearly the direct result of an unpoliced Facebook, and it is up to someone, preferably Democratic officeholders themselves, to do the policing now.
UltraViolet, the third member of the Let’s Break Elon’s Windows gang, is funded through groups like the American Federation of Teachers and the Libra Foundation, the donor organization for a billionaire member of the left-wing Pritzker family. UltraViolet is unique in the staid world of NGOs for sharing a name with an Andy Warhol superstar (given name: Isabelle Collin Dufresne). The group was #MeToo before #MeToo existed, getting the sneaker company Reebok to drop the rapper Rick Ross as a pitchman in 2013 over his purported support of “rape culture,” and lobbying the next year for TBS to cancel CeeLo Green’s show over his alleged misogyny.
But the foundation does more than target successful Black musicians. The height of the hallucinatory Brett Kavanaugh sexual assault uproar saw UltraViolet-trained activists bracing then-Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., in a Capitol Hill elevator, manufacturing an instantly viral moment amid one of the most unhinged political episodes of the entire Trump era. In fact, the group had trained over 300 volunteers to walk the halls of the Senate office buildings and confront whatever lawmakers they came across, a tactic the group then openly bragged about. UltraViolet is of course founded and led by someone with a career in professional Democratic politics, in this case by the former head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ nonprofit arm, Shaunna Thomas.
The anti-Musk triad forms a kind of unity: One leg is well-known and established, another is a recent creation of the party’s dark-money infrastructure, and the third practices a watered-down, establishment-blessed variation on direct action, specializing in guerilla tantruming tactics to get business and lawmakers to go along with whatever it is they want. They are all, in some sense, effective at what they do. Media Matters and UltraViolet have launched campaigns that got people fired and starved Fox News of corporate advertising money; Accountable Tech helped amplify Facebook “whistleblower” Frances Haugen’s well-plotted campaign against her former employer.
What really unites these organizations isn’t an ideology or a common donor list or a shared agenda or the prominent place of the Democratic Party in the resumes of their leadership. What binds them is a project to expand the partisan battleground until nothing and no one is exempt from the end-times struggle they might sincerely believe themselves to be waging—not Elon Musk, not Coca-Cola, not Rick Ross. And not you, either.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.