Disinformation commission loaded with liberal bias, some foreign ties
Jennie Taer, DCNF
- The Aspen Institute’s “Commission on Information Disorder” is composed of largely progressive commissioners, a Daily Caller News Foundation review has found.
- The commission has top figures as well as lesser-known individuals who have shown leftist bias, some who have been caught up in financial scandals, and yet others who have foreign ties.
- The nonprofit group was recently criticized by a leading conservative group for appointing “partisans” to confront disinformation.
- The commission released a report on its priorities Tuesday.
The Aspen Institute has chosen a number of figures for its Commission on Information Disorder who appear to harbor bias and have past controversies, a Daily Caller News Foundation review has found.
Katie Couric, Prince Harry, and Kathryn Murdoch are some of the more recognizable of the commissioners, but the group also includes many lesser-known figures with partisan ties. Most of the commissioners are left-leaning, and some were found by the DCNF to also have financial scandals or foreign ties.
While many commissioners have worked in the field of disinformation, several have been associated with leftist groups or pushed information that was partisan or inaccurate.
There are some on the commission who don’t appear to have a liberal bias, including Jigsaw Director of Research and Development Yasmin Green, former Republican Rep. Will Hurd, Stanford University scholar and research fellow Dr. Herb Lin, Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute executive director Jameel Jaffer, Renew Democracy founder Garry Kasparov, MIT professor Deb Roy, and former principal deputy director of national intelligence Susan Gordon. Hurd and Chris Krebs, a former national security official, are members of the commission who are openly Republican.
The commission‘s stated mission is to “identify and prioritize the most critical sources and causes of information disorder and deliver a set of short-term actions and longer-term goals to help government, the private sector, and civil society respond to this modern-day crisis of faith in key institutions.”
The group released an interim report Tuesday outlining its priorities of “Reducing harms,” “Increasing transparency and understanding,” and “Building trust.” The commissioners met twice a month from April until the report’s release and the report will allow the commission to make specific recommendations from now until late September. The commission, according to the report, is a “diverse group from across the political spectrum, representing academia, government, philanthropy, and civil society.”
The report addressed criticism the commission has received regarding political bias and defended that the commissioners didn’t inject personal bias into their work to address information disorder. Information disorder is a term that was coined by First Draft co-founder Dr. Claire Wardle to encompass “mis-, dis- and malinformation,” according to a 2017 report from the Council of Europe.
“Commissioners also recognized the political lens through which their work would undoubtedly be viewed,” the report stated. “While this was to be expected, they did not approach their priority-setting from partisan perspectives, nor did they shy away from the issues that are at the core of our current polarized and politicized climate. Information disorder is a whole-of-society problem with life-and-death consequences, and despite those who decry this work as partisan, it is the Commission’s view that every individual has a right to access reliable, trusted information from institutions and leaders.”
Craig Newmark Philanthropies, created and funded in part by the founder of Craigslist, largely funded the disinformation commission with $3.2 million, according to the Aspen Institute’s website. Newmark’s organization has donated millions of dollars to journalism schools across the country and media groups, including the left-wing Mother Jones and ProPublica. Newmark himself is a critic of former President Donald Trump and has a history of supporting Democrats seeking office.
Hannah-Jones is behind The 1619 Project, which has been questioned or discredited by many historians. Parts of the curriculum were “quietly edited” by the New York Times, according to the conservative Heritage Foundation whose scholars criticized the accuracy of the effort. The Times later issued a clarification on a portion of the project.
Craig Newmark Philanthropies didn’t respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.
Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble
Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble, cofounder and co-director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, funded by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s Archewell Foundation, has a history of lauding Marxist ideas and figures. In a recent virtual discussion at RightsCon, Noble cited Communist activist Angela Davis when explaining how technology affects social change.
“[When] I was an undergrad in college, I remember reading Angela Davis writing about the dishwasher and how the dishwasher was supposed to be this new liberatory tool for women … and her feminist critique is that it didn’t liberate us from washing dishes as women, it didn’t liberate us in the domestic sphere of having to reproduce the labor market,” Noble said during the talk in June.
“What it did was raise the bar and make a higher standard of cleanliness that we all had to then adhere to,” she added. “So it made more work for us, but people fancied it a tool. But it actually transformed social practice and in fact was part of a whole parcel of appliances and projects and consumerism that ensnared us even more.”
Noble in 2015 shared a link without comment to a Marxist-Leninist site promoting Communist literature. She’s also tweeted on several occasions of her contempt for “white supremacist, patriarchal capitalism” and “racialized capitalism.”
— Safiya Umoja Noble PhD (@safiyanoble) June 20, 2015
One of the contradictions I face under racialized capitalism is that I come from a hardcore sports family, and I married a jock, and my kid is a jock. If I were a man, I would have done anything to play pro sports. I watched #AnyGivenSunday at least 10 times in the theater.
— Safiya Umoja Noble PhD (@safiyanoble) April 20, 2020
“Tech products are built on global supply chains of exploitation—from conflict minerals to e-waste & everything in btwn, incl labor, manufacturing and consumption. Tech is political, structural, & systemic, it’s not just software & hardware. It’s racialized capitalism on steroids,” Noble tweeted in 2019.
Quantum brain: it’s racialized surveillance capitalism, lack of international standards, regulations, and recourses in the financialized data economy and it may take a total collapse to arrest it (♥️ @onekade for this thread) https://t.co/rrhbenVGvN
— Safiya Umoja Noble PhD (@safiyanoble) March 20, 2018
I mean, a call for the end of white supremacist, patriarchal capitalism isn’t the bullet point everyone is ready for, now is it.
— Safiya Umoja Noble PhD (@safiyanoble) May 23, 2019
Dr. Aaron Ford
Dr. Aaron Ford serves as the Nevada Attorney General and is a co-chair of the Democratic Attorneys General Association.
“Democrats are the party of protecting health care, advancing civil rights, pushing for criminal justice reform, and expanding reproductive rights. We are the party committed to voting rights, ensuring equal access to the ballot box, and combating efforts to delegitimize our democratic institutions,” Ford said in a statement after he announced his leadership role with the association.
Ford joins the group with some financial mishaps under his belt. Ford had multiple IRS tax liens filed against him for failing to pay $185,000 in income taxes between 2010 and 2013, according to lien information reviewed by the DCNF. A lien was later filed for $41,896.43 of unpaid taxes in April 2014 and another in December 2014 for $58,685.07.
At the time of his financial scandal, his campaign manager told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that Ford had paid his taxes every year, but that “After the recession hit, like a lot of families, the Fords faced some financial difficulties.”
Ford, however, purchased a new home in Las Vegas for $468,138 during the time of his liens, according to the Washington Free Beacon. The liens were last listed in 2015 and didn’t appear on Ford’s 2016 financial disclosure. The three liens were released by the federal government in 2016, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Ford served as an associate at Snell & Wilmer between 2007 and 2010 before being promoted to partner, a position he held from 2011 to 2015.
An entry-level associate’s starting annual salary at the firm’s Las Vegas office is $145,000, according to Snell & Wilmer’s website, while a partner at the firm reportedly makes $250,000 annually, according to a website where individuals can report information about a company.
Ford left Snell & Wilmer at the end of 2015 to join Eglet Prince, a personal injury law firm, according to his LinkedIn.
His wife, Berna Rhodes-Ford, was employed at the time as a managing shareholder at the law firm she started in 2011, Rhodes-Ford & Associates, according to her LinkedIn profile. She left the firm in 2019 to serve as general counsel for Nevada State College.
Ford’s communications director referred the DCNF to a March press release on the attorney general’s appointment to the commission, but asked that the DCNF contact his campaign on questions about his liens. Ford’s campaign didn’t respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.
Marla Blow serves as president and COO of the Skoll Foundation, which was founded by former eBay president Jeff Skoll. The Skoll Foundation shares grantmaking, program, and administrative resources with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF), according to the Skoll Foundation’s website. The Skoll Foundation’s programs include “Advancing Racial Justice” and “Inclusive Economies.” The Skoll Fund, its charity arm, consolidates its financial statements with the SVCF.
Blow has expressed solidarity with the racial justice movement and tweeted in 2020 that “#ThereIsNoNeutrality” when it comes to Black Lives Matter.
Take note – this is what a statement looks and sounds like!
— Marla Blow (@Marla_Blow) September 7, 2020
In response to a tweet about racial riots in the summer of 2020, Blow defined a riot as “an attempt to touch things that matter to the governing class since HUMAN LIFE apparently isn’t the thing.”
What language is understood in the superstructure in this country? A riot is an attempt to touch things that matter to the governing class since HUMAN LIFE apparently isn’t the thing. Your tweet proves how effective it is – have you ever tweeted about the lives lost??!
— Marla Blow (@Marla_Blow) May 31, 2020
Blow tweeted the next month about the riots and that she was “hearing that fireworks are being left laying around and given out in Black and brown communities … ”
Ok…so I just saw some kids with fireworks and we asked where they copped them out of genuine interest and they said – low key, someone just gave them to me. So now all these conspiracy theories are looking a little less conspirac-ish. 🤔
— Kelly Harrison (@KellsHarrison) June 22, 2020
Jeff Skoll has donated millions of dollars to the progressive Priorities USA and tens of thousands of dollars to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign as well as a number of state Democratic Party chapters across the country, according to Influence Watch.
The big tech-funded SVCF in 2018 faced allegations The New York Times called “a toxic culture” that resulted in a leadership shakeup. An independent investigation into the allegations of abuse found “certain widespread workplace culture issues,” according to a public report on the matter.
Employees both former and current at the time reported “racial and sexual comments” that were made in the workplace and the investigation found multiple allegations to be true. SVCF executives engaged in such misconduct but their actions went a step further to workplace “berating and bullying.” The executives also weren’t transparent with the organization’s board members about the issues, according to the investigation.
Anyone reporting the abuse allegedly feared retaliation due to the “command and control” leadership style of the SVCF’s former CEO and former senior development executive and complaints to the HR department weren’t properly addressed, the investigation found.
The foundation’s CEO Emmett Carson resigned the day the report was released. Its fundraiser Mari Ellen Loijens and human resources chief Daiva Natochy both had resigned earlier in 2018.
“I am sorry that this occurred and regret any role that I may have played in contributing to these feelings,” Carson told the Silicon Valley Business Journal after his departure.
The Skoll Foundation’s stated mission is “to build a sustainable world of peace and prosperity for all.” Its current CEO, Donald Gips, served the Obama administration as director of presidential personnel and as the U.S. ambassador to South Africa. The organization has had a partnership with former President Jimmy Carter’s Carter Center since 2007.
— Skoll Foundation (@SkollFoundation) April 25, 2018
Skoll has a number of programs under its mission including Ending Pandemics, which is sponsored by the left-leaning Tides Foundation.
Amanda Zamora started The 19th, a nonprofit news outlet reporting on gender, politics, and policy. The 19th is largely funded by Kathryn and James Murdoch’s foundation Quadrivium, along with Roger and Ann McNamee, according to its website. Kathryn Murdoch and Craig Newmark both sit on The 19th’s board of directors while The 19th is on the board of Newmark’s charity organization. Newmark is also a big donor of the nonprofit.
Roger McNamee was an early investor in Google and Facebook, but has since come out against the big tech companies for causing societal harm. He wrote The New York Times bestselling book “Zucked” about the “serious damage Facebook is doing to our society.”
McNamee, who is the private equity investment fund Elevation Partners’ cofounder and managing director, cozied up to George Soros and helped write the left-wing billionaire’s speech for the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos about big tech’s damaging effects on the public.
The 19th is also funded by the Ford Foundation and Arnold Ventures, which controversially invested in tests to fly spy drones over Baltimore, Maryland to surveil potential criminal activity and later halted funding to a similar program in St. Louis, Missouri.
The publication is left-leaning, writing pieces with headlines like “Women overcame the toxic masculinity that defined the Trump presidency. Then it was displayed anew” and “Are White women finally waking up?”
— amanda zamora (@amzam) January 10, 2021
The 19th recently hosted an event with Black Lives Matter leader Alicia Garza and also held a discussion on “How Trans Athletes are Leading On and Off the Field.”
When it comes to Black Lives Matter, “matter” is the minimum. What will it take to turn this decentralized social movement into political action? Join @aliciagarza @RepKarenBass in conversation with @emarvelous June 17. RSVP to submit your Qs now: https://t.co/U7P4LuzJlV
— amanda zamora (@amzam) June 7, 2021
Rashad Robinson is president of Color of Change, a social justice organization founded by President Barack Obama’s former “green jobs czar” Van Jones and MoveOn.org’s former director of grassroots mobilization James Rucker.
The group is funded by left-wing mega-donors such as George Soros under his Open Society Foundations and Open Society Policy Center, according to Influence Watch.
Flyers disseminated by the group in 2014 received a “mostly false” rating from PolitiFact for asserting that Republicans were “trying to impeach” then-President Obama.
Color of Change alleged in 2006 that a number of large corporations like Amazon, PayPal, and MasterCard were taking “blood money” from “white nationalist groups” that “need to fund and organize hatred and violence against Black people and other marginalized communities,” after the 2015 Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, the 2017 stabbing of three men in Portland who were defending two black girls, and the 2017 deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The campaign called for the companies to cease performing financial services to Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate groups.
The group also has a history of targeting conservatives. For instance, Color of Change started a petition in 2006 opposing the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, saying he’s “a grave threat to civil rights.”
At the time, the group advocated that senators filibuster Alito’s confirmation. Robinson recently came out against the Senate filibuster, saying “it has a racist past and present.”
Color of Change demanded in 2007 that the Congressional Black Caucus drop its plans to co-host presidential debates with Fox News and attempted to deplatform Glenn Beck in 2009 and Andrew Breitbart in 2010.
The group organized in 2011 to take down the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for promoting voter ID requirements, claiming the initiative “suppresses the black vote.”
“Out of primetime, COPS no longer has a mainstream platform and will have a significantly smaller audience. Research shows that exploiting persistent dehumanizing stereotypes that marginalize Black Americans have real-world consequences, and there is much more work to be done to bring about a significant cultural shift in the ways we are portrayed in the media,” Robinson said at the time.
The organization recently asked tech companies to adopt a “new racial equity framework” that includes “divesting from police and mass incarceration.”
A spokesperson for Color of Change declined to comment on Robinson’s role on the commission.
Dr. Kate Starbird
Dr. Kate Starbird is an associate professor at the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington (UW).
She co-founded in 2019 the UW Center for an Informed Public, which received funding from the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab to research election integrity. Starbird played an integral role in producing a report in March under the partnership.
Some of the Atlantic Council’s top donors include a number of foreign governments and entities, including Burisma, a Ukrainian energy firm linked to Hunter Biden.
In a June Twitter thread, Starbird criticized a family member for gifting a 10-year-old family member “a small U.S. flag, pocket Constitution, & Ben Carson’s biography.” Together, she said, the gifts “reveal structural patterns & psychological effects of long-term exposure to propaganda.”
It wasn’t the first time she’s tweeted about her conservative family members.
Starbird earlier tweeted of her “family conspiracy theorist” supporting the COVID “lab leak theory.”
For months, Pres Trump & his supporters had been pushing a range of false, misleading, and exaggerated claims meant to sow distrust in the mail-in voting process specifically and the election results more generally. Here’s a tweet from June: pic.twitter.com/1QgGIBRynu
— Kate Starbird (@katestarbird) May 21, 2021
The disinformation campaign around Election 2020 is ongoing (and it began long before 2020). It will likely be with us for years to come — that’s the best case scenario. The worst case is it becomes our “reality", which may be one of the last straws on democracy’s back. https://t.co/Y6G5gNr2Al
— Kate Starbird (@katestarbird) June 6, 2021
Can anyone fill me in on why my <loved ones>, elderly Fox News watchers and right wing email recipients, have a stack of “unrestricted warfare” books that they’re handing out to unsuspecting visitors? (Who told them this book holds the secrets that they need to share with us?)
— Kate Starbird (@katestarbird) June 7, 2021
Being pushed by family conspiracy theorist to engage with the CGG-CGG discourse (lab leak theory). All I can say (and tell family member) is that we probably shouldn’t be getting our science through politically-motivated op-eds — especially by folks w/o expertise in a field.
— Kate Starbird (@katestarbird) June 8, 2021
For a 10th birthday my <loved one> gave my <loved one> 3 gifts: a small U.S. flag, pocket Constitution, & Ben Carson's biography, Gifted Hands. Any of these would be fine alone. Together, they reveal structural patterns & psychological effects of long-term exposure to propaganda.
— Kate Starbird (@katestarbird) June 20, 2021
Chris Krebs formerly directed the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency during the Trump presidency. He is a senior Newmark fellow in Cybersecurity Policy for Aspen Digital and is the co-founder of the Krebs Stamos Group.
Krebs was fired by Trump after saying that the 2020 election “was the most secure in American history.” Trump announced the termination in a tweet posted on Nov. 18, 2020, where he made unfounded claims of “massive improprieties and fraud” in the 2020 election.
Krebs is a Republican who is critical of the party’s members who backed Trump’s claims.
“I would appreciate more support from my own party, the Republican Party, to call this stuff out and end it. We’ve gotta move on. We have a president-elect in President-elect Biden,” Krebs testified in 2020 before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Krebs was previously the director for cybersecurity policy for Microsoft’s U.S. Government Affairs team and had positions with national security consulting firms Obsidian Analysis and Dutko Consulting. Before that, Krebs served in the George W. Bush administration as an adviser tackling security issues.
Since his termination, Krebs has openly targeted Republicans on social media, especially those who align themselves with Trump. He’s made a name for himself in doing so and is now with a speaker’s bureau.
He charges $50,000-$100,000 for an in-person speech and $30,000-$50,000 for a virtual speech, according to his All American Entertainment speaker profile.
— Chris Krebs (@C_C_Krebs) January 12, 2021
Alex Stamos co-founded the Krebs Stamos Group with Krebs and formerly served as Facebook’s and Yahoo’s chief security officer and is now the founder of the Stanford Internet Observatory.
Stamos said on CNN earlier this year that groups like the Proud Boys and the Three Percenters “need to be treated like ISIS effectively.” He’s also called for conservative networks like OANN and Newsmax to be deplatformed. The Three Percenters are defined by the Anti-Defamation League as anti-government extremists who claim that only 3 percent of Americans fought the British in the Revolutionary War.
“These companies have freedom of speech, but I’m not sure we need Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and such to be bringing them into tens of millions of homes,” Stamos said of the conservative networks during the interview.
Stamos’s Internet Observatory at Stanford is part of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, which has a research center at China’s Peking University. Peking University last month announced the establishment of a CCP institute and for years China’s communist government has praised the university. Chinese President Xi Jinping recently wrote a letter to foreign students at the university encouraging them to visit China to see the country’s “progress.”
The Spogli Institute also houses Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Dr. Herb Lin, who is also on the commission, is a senior research scholar there.
Unlike Stamos, Lin hasn’t shown personal bias and often presents information with his expertise rather than personal commentary. He’s written extensively on cybersecurity and the threats posed by foreign adversaries like China and testified before House committee members in April about the threat posed by “cyber-enabled information warfare.”
Marla Blow, Chris Krebs, Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble, Deb Roy, Alex Stamos, Kate Starbird, and Amanda Zamora didn’t respond to the DCNF’s requests for comments. The Aspen Institute also didn’t respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment.
Madeline Dovi and Cole Crystal contributed to this report.