The US State Department said on Tuesday that it has pulled funding from the George Soros-backed Global Disinformation Index (GDI), after it was revealed that the organization was working to deprive conservative media outlets of advertising revenue.
GDI is a UK-based nonprofit that describes its mission as “disrupting the business of disinformation.” It does this by compiling lists of “high-risk” news and information outlets – predominantly right-leaning and anti-liberal – and passing these on to advertisers, which in turn refuse to run ads on the sites.
According to a recent investigation by the Washington Examiner, GDI received more than $200,000 from the National Endowment for Democracy and around $100,000 from the Global Engagement Center, both entities of the US State Department. The funding is in addition to undisclosed amounts from billionaire financier Soros and the UK Foreign Office, both of which are listed as donors on its website.
This is the second part of a Washington Examiner investigative series about self-styled 'disinformation' tracking groups that are cracking down on conservative media and part of a lucrative operation that aims to defund disfavored speech. To read part one, click here.
The Department of State has funded a deep-pocketed "disinformation" tracking group that is secretly blacklisting and trying to defund conservative media, likely costing the news organizations vital advertising dollars, the Washington Examiner can confirm.
The Global Disinformation Index, a British organization with two affiliated U.S. nonprofit groups, is feeding blacklists to ad companies with the intent of defunding and shutting down websites peddling alleged "disinformation," the Washington Examiner reported . This same "disinformation" group has received $330,000 from two State Department-backed entities linked to the highest levels of government, raising concerns from First Amendment lawyers and members of Congress.
"Any outfit like that engaged in censorship shouldn't have any contact with the government because they're tainted by association with a group that is doing something fundamentally against American values," Jeffrey Clark, ex-acting head of the Justice Department's Civil Division, told the Washington Examiner. "The government or any private entity shouldn't be involved with this entity that's engaged in conduct that is either legally questionable or at least morally questionable."
GDI compiles a "dynamic exclusion list" that it feeds to corporate entities, such as the Microsoft -owned advertising company Xandr, emails show. Xandr and other companies are, in turn, declining to place ads on websites that GDI flags as peddling disinformation.
The Washington Examiner revealed on Thursday that it is on this exclusion list. The list includes at least 2,000 websites and has "had a significant impact on the advertising revenue that has gone to those sites," said GDI's CEO Clare Melford on a March 2022 podcast.
GDI has identified that the 10 "riskiest" news outlets for disinformation are the American Spectator, Newsmax, the Federalist, the American Conservative, One America News, the Blaze, the Daily Wire, RealClearPolitics, Reason, and the New York Post.
"They might consider TAC a ‘high-risk’ publication because we have consistently taken on the bipartisan establishment’s sacred cows, whether it's the war in Iraq, nation-building in Afghanistan, or the harm done by free trade and open borders — and we’ve been proven right time and time again," Emile Doak, executive director of the American Conservative, told the Washington Examiner. "They know they can't say we're wrong, only that we're biased and 'high-risk,' so we will wear that designation as a badge of honor."
One member of GDI's advisory panel, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, told the Washington Examiner it "sounds plausible" that any website on the "riskiest" list is also on the exclusion list. The member claimed they haven't helped craft the exclusion list and said "disinformation" labeling could potentially be seen as censorship.
The first State Department-backed group that has supported GDI is the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit group that receives nearly all of its funding from annual congressional appropriations.
According to financial statements, the NED received over $300 million from the State Department in 2021. Critics have argued that the endowment, which Congress authorized in 1983, is essentially a government grantmaking body despite its legal status as a private entity.
In 2020, the NED granted $230,000 to the AN Foundation, GDI's group that also goes by the Disinformation Index Foundation, documents show.
The grant was to "deepen understanding of the challenges to information integrity in the digital space" in Africa , Asia, and other foreign countries, to "assess disinformation risks of local online media ecosystems," according to the NED, which noted that GDI would compile "risk ratings" for ad companies and others to assess "risks that arise from funding disinformation."
The NED's board of directors "controls" how it spends congressional appropriations, according to the nonprofit group's website. That 23-member board includes liberal journalist Anne Applebaum, who also sits on GDI's advisory panel, ex-Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), and Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX).
The federal government could run into legal trouble depending on the extent to which it’s paying or directing GDI to "censor information, pressure publications to censor, or pressure advertisers not to publish, in a way that harms U.S. citizens or companies," Ilya Shapiro, director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute, told the Washington Examiner.
But GDI's ties to the government extend far beyond the NED.
GDI has also disclosed taking money from Disinfo Cloud, an unclassified and defunct platform through the State Department's Global Engagement Center. Disinfo Cloud was used between 2018 and 2021 by Congress and over a dozen federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Energy, Treasury, and the FBI , according to the State Department.
The GEC aims to "counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining or influencing the policies, security, or stability of the United States, its allies, and partner nations," according to its website.
In 2018, the GEC began funding Disinfo Cloud, a State Department spokesperson told the Washington Examiner. The GEC awarded roughly $300,000 to an investment group called Park Advisers, which fights "disinformation, terrorism, violent extremism, hate speech" to manage Disinfo Cloud, the spokesperson said.
Park Advisers implemented Disinfo Cloud "to provide the U.S. government and its partners with a database of the tools and technologies available to help push back against foreign propaganda and disinformation," according to its website, which links to Disinfo Cloud's former landing page that has since been pulled off the internet.
In September 2021, the GEC and Disinfo Cloud announced that the Global Disinformation Index and two groups would split a $250,000 grant award as part of the U.S-Paris Tech Challenge. The challenge aimed "to advance the development of promising and innovative technologies against disinformation and propaganda" overseas, records show.
The Washington Examiner was unable to locate public documents reflecting the precise sum that GDI pocketed from this award. However, a State Department spokesperson said that GDI received $100,000 of the $250,000 award, which the GEC first paid to Park Advisers.
"If the Department of State, or any other government agency, is giving taxpayer money to shadowy organizations who are putting their thumbs on the scale of who gets heard and who doesn’t, it is a significant First Amendment violation," said David Warrington, an attorney for Dhillon Law Group. "The government is not supposed to be picking winners and losers in the free speech arena, regardless of whether they do it directly or by proxy, as appears to be the case here."
Two members of Congress told the Washington Examiner that they intend to investigate how the federal government is using taxpayer dollars when it comes to "disinformation" initiatives.
"Last year, under tremendous bipartisan pressure, I refused to reauthorize the Global Engagement Center because such a step seemed premature," said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "The most recent allegations, if verified, confirm the need for a strict accounting of all U.S. taxpayer funds going to the GEC."
Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), similarly, said in a statement that the Biden administration is "knee deep" in left-leaning efforts to "crack down" on speech.
"House Republicans will be hauling these bad actors before Congress, and I absolutely support legislation to ban federal funding of anti-free speech groups," he told the Washington Examiner, referring to private sector actors and certain federal officials.