Pierre Omidyar's Financing of the Facebook "Whistleblower" Campaign Reveals a Great Deal
The internet is the last remaining instrument for dissent and free discourse to thrive outside state and oligarchical control. This campaign aims to put an end to that.
It is completely unsurprising to learn, as Politico reported last Wednesday, that the major financial supporter of Facebook "whistleblower” Frances Haugen's sprawling P.R. and legal network coordinating her public campaign is the billionaire founder of EBay, Pierre Omidyar. The Haugen Show continues today as a consortium of carefully cultivated news outlets (including those who have been most devoted to agitating for online censorship: the New York Times’ "tech” unit and NBC News's “disinformation” team) began publishing the trove of archives she took from Facebook under the self-important title "The Facebook Papers,” while the star herself has traveled to London to testify today to British lawmakers considering a bill to criminally punish tech companies that allow “foul content” or “extremism” — whatever that means — to be published.
On Sunday, Haugen told The New York Times that her own personal Bitcoin wealth means she is relying on “help from nonprofit groups backed by Mr. Omidyar only for travel and similar expenses.” But the paper also confirmed that the firm masterminding Haugen's public campaign roll-out and complex media strategy, a group "founded by the former Barack Obama aide Bill Burton,” is “being paid by donors, including the nonprofit groups backed by Mr. Omidyar." He is also a major donor to a shady new group calling itself “Whistleblower Aid” — bizarrely led by anti-Trump lawyer and social media #Resistance star Mark Zaid, who has been one of the most vocal critics of actual whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, both of whose imprisonment he has long demanded — that is now featuring Haugen as its star client.
Omidyar's net worth is currently estimated to be $22 billion, making him the planet's 26th richest human being. Like so many billionaires who pledge to give away large parts of their wealth to charity, and who in fact do so, Omidyar's net worth somehow rapidly grows every year: in 2013, just eight years ago, it was “only” $8 billion: it has almost tripled since then.
Omidyar's central role in this latest scheme to impose greater control over social media is unsurprising because he and his multi-national foundation, the Omidyar Network, fund many if not most of the campaigns and organizations designed to police and control political speech on the internet under the benevolent-sounding banner of combating "disinformation” and “extremism.” Though one could have easily guessed that it was Omidyar fueling Frances Haugen and her team of Democratic Party operatives acting as lawyers and P.R. agents — I would have been shocked if he had no role — it is still nonetheless highly revealing of what these campaigns and groups are, how they function, what their real goals are, and the serious dangers they pose.
Any time I speak or write about Omidyar, the proverbial elephant in the room is my own extensive involvement with him: specifically, the fact that the journalistic outlet I co-founded in 2013, and at which I worked for eight years, was funded almost entirely by him. For purposes of basic journalistic disclosure, but also to explain how my interaction with him informs my perspective on these issues, I will describe that experience and what I learned from it.
When I left the Guardian in 2013 at the height of the Snowden/NSA reporting to co-found a new media outlet along with two other journalists, it was Omidyar who funded the project, which ultimately became The Intercept, along with its parent corporation, First Look Media. Our unconditional demand when deciding to accept funding from Omidyar was that he vow never to have any role whatsoever or attempt to interfere in any way in the editorial content of our reporting, no matter how much he disagreed with it or how distasteful he found it. He not only agreed to this condition but emphasized that he, too, believed the integrity of the new journalism project depended upon our enjoying full editorial freedom and independence from his influence.
In the eight years I spent at The Intercept, Omidyar completely kept his word. There was never a single occasion, at least to my knowledge, when he attempted to interfere in or override our journalistic independence. For the first couple of years, adhering to that promise was easy: he was an ardent supporter of the Snowden reporting which consumed most of our time and energy back then and, specifically, viewed a defense of our press freedoms (which were under systemic attack from multiple governments) as a genuine social good. So our journalism and Omidyar's worldview were fully aligned for the first couple of years of The Intercept's existence.
The arrival of Donald Trump on the political scene in 2015 changed all of that, and did so quite dramatically. As Trump ascended to the presidency, Omidyar became monomaniacally obsessed with opposing Trump. Although Omidyar stopped tweeting in March, 2019 and has since locked his Twitter account, he spent 2015-2019 as a very active user of the platform. The content he was posting on Twitter on a daily basis was utterly indistinguishable from the standard daily hysterical MSNBC panels or New York Times op-eds, proclaiming Trump a fascist, white nationalist, and existential threat to democracy, and depicting him as a singular evil, the root of America's political pathology. In other words, the Trump-centric worldview that I spent most of my time attacking and mocking on every platform I had — in speeches, interviews, podcasts, social media and in countless articles at The Intercept — was the exact political worldview to which Omidyar had completely devoted himself and was passionately and vocally advocating.
The radical divergence between my worldview and Omidyar's did not end there. Like most who viewed Trump as the primary cause of America's evils rather than just a symptom of them, Omidyar also became a fanatical Russiagater. A large portion of his Twitter feed was devoted to the multi-pronged conspiracy theory that Trump was in bed with and controlled by the Kremlin and that its president, Vladimir Putin, through his control over Trump and “interference” in U.S. democracy, represented some sort of grave threat to all things good and decent in American political life. All of that happened at exactly the same time that I became one of the media's most vocal and passionate critics of Russiagate mania, frequently criticizing and deriding exactly the views that Omidyar was most passionately expressing on Twitter, often within hours of his posting them.
My dissent on Russiagate became so vocal, just as Omidyar was devoting himself to it with greater and greater zeal, that liberal outlets began publishing lengthy and highly critical profiles of me that had little purpose but to expel me from Decent Liberal Society due to my Russiagate heresy and to cast that dissent as the byproduct of mental instability rather than genuine conviction. This extreme divergence between my public profile and Omidyar's core views expanded for years. Often Omidyar would promote and herald a view on Twitter in the morning, and I would then publish an article on The Intercept attacking that same view in the afternoon, and then go on television that night to attack it some more.
Perhaps most extraordinary was that Omidyar became convinced that salvation from the evils of Trump and Russia was to be found primarily in propping up the faction of #NeverTrump Republicans — led by people like neocon Bill Kristol, career CIA operative Evan McMullin, and the consummate scumbags of the Lincoln Project — whom he regarded as uniquely patriotic and noble for putting country over party (even though their influence was confined to cable news green rooms and major newspaper op-ed pages). Omidyar began funding many of the #NeverTrump groups overseen by Kristol — who I often denounced and still regard as one of the most toxic and deceitful figures in American political life — as well as groups whose sole purpose was to hype the Russian threat and who claimed they were united in patriotic bipartisan unity to combat Russia-and-Trump-fueled disinformation on the internet. To underscore how deeply ensconced Omidyar became in the very political faction for which I harbored the greatest scorn and expressed the most unbridled contempt, his very last tweet since he stopped using Twitter in 2019 was an approving retweet of the Lincoln Project's Rick Wilson, claiming for the ten thousandth time that conclusive proof had emerged of Trump's criminality.
That Omidyar's political activism and my journalism did not just diverge, but became polar opposites, was so glaring that it began attracting the attention of journalists who contacted us to tell us they intended to write stories on this strange situation. It was indeed extreme: there were times when I was publishing investigative articles or scathing denunciations of the very groups Omidyar was funding and promoting, putting him in the situation in which the U.S. government often finds itself: essentially funding both sides of the same war. It was an irresistible story to journalists: at the time, I was the most prominent and the highest-paid journalist associated with The Intercept, which relied almost entirely on Omidyar's annual multi-million dollar largesse, and yet my primary political and journalistic focus at The Intercept was tantamount to a war on Omidyar's most cherished political beliefs and core objectives.
On at least two occasions, journalists with major outlets contacted each of us to let us know they wanted to write about this glaring split. Yet neither ended up doing so for a simple reason: Omidyar made it emphatically clear that I had the absolute right to express whatever views I wanted, and that my doing so would never create a problem with him, let alone cause him to rethink his funding of The Intercept.
To underscore the point, Omidyar told me privately on both occasions that he knew when he decided to fund The Intercept that the day would come, likely soon, when not just me but other journalists there would be publishing articles with which he vehemently disagreed or even undermined his other interests. When he decided to fund The Intercept, he told me, he was supporting independent journalism, not promoting a particular ideology or political agenda. And indeed, no matter how much my attacks escalated on his core beliefs and the other groups he was heavily funding — and escalate they did! — I never received any remote signal that my outspoken journalism and commentary were imperiling his ongoing funding of The Intercept.
I recount all of that for two reasons. First, I want to make clear that my analysis of Omidyar's role in this scam Facebook "whistleblower” campaign and the dangers it presents is in no way motivated by personal animus toward him. Indeed, I harbor no personal hostility toward him; to the contrary, I genuinely respect that he kept his word for all those years by honoring our editorial freedom even as he was funding my journalism and the journalism of others with which he vehemently disagreed. As I made clear when I quit The Intercept in protest over their censorship of my pre-election article about Joe Biden, I viewed the degradation of The Intercept as the fault of its senior editorial management team, who had no involvement in the outlet's founding, did not share its core mission or values, and had reduced it to little more than a trite ideological mouthpiece for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
But the second point is the more important one. When it comes to billionaire funders of political and journalistic projects, Omidyar — despite the long list of political views and activities of his that I regard as misguided or even toxic — is, for the reasons I just outlined, as good as it gets. And yet despite all that, it is simply unavoidable — inevitable — that the ideology, views and political agenda of a billionaire funder will end up contaminating and dominating any project for which they are the exclusive or primary funder. Omidyar is not some apolitical or neutral guardian of good internet governance; he is a highly politicized and ideological actor with very strong views on society's most debated questions.
And that is why it is so dangerous that the campaign to control and police the internet — to launch pressure campaigns to further centralize the control over what can and cannot be said online, and to further restrict the range of views that is deemed permissible — is being funded almost entirely by a small handful of multi-billionaires like Omidyar. No matter how benevolent and well-intentioned they may be, the power and control they will inevitably wield, even if they try not to, will be limitless.
And when it comes to a free internet, few things are more dangerous than allowing a tiny number of like-minded billionaires to use their vast wealth to control the contours of permissible speech. Yet that is exactly what has been happening. And the obviously orchestrated, well-planned and well-financed campaign centered around this new high-tech Joan of Arc, ready to be martyred to save us all from an unsafe internet, is merely the latest example.
To understand the dangers of a small group of billionaires funding campaigns like this Facebook "whistleblower” spectacle and other “anti-disinformation” and “anti-extremism” groups, put yourself in the place of senior editors of The Intercept. Despite Omidayr's genuine affirmation of editorial independence, they live in complete captivity to, and fear of, Omidyar's whims and preferences.
As is true of so many billionaire-funded NGOs and “non-profits,” editors and senior writers at The Intercept receive gigantic, well-above-the-market salaries. Because the site depends almost entirely on Omidyar's infinite wealth, it does not sell any subscriptions or ads and it therefore does not have any pressure to produce at all in order to generate revenue. It is a dream job for most of them: enormous salaries, endless expense accounts, a complete lack of job requirements, and no need even to attract an audience. For years, outside of three or four journalists, articles published by The Intercept produce almost no traffic. With rare exception, nobody reads the site. They have a massive budget to create highly produced videos and yet their videos almost never exceed even 10,000 views: most tiny, from-their-garage, zero-budget YouTubers attract larger audiences. And nobody cares, because the money flows in from Omidyar no matter what.
It does not get better than that, and that is why almost nobody ever quits The Intercept. Why would they? They just stay for years and years, collecting a huge salary, with no need to do anything but avoid angering one man. They work in an industry where jobs disappear with astonishing frequency, where layoffs are the norm, where the very existence of most organizations is precarious, and where the slightest dissent from liberal orthodoxies can render someone permanently unemployable. Those who work in outlets funded by billionaires have essentially won a type of lottery, at least temporarily, and very few people are willing to risk losing a winning lottery ticket, especially if they know they have no alternatives in the event that their security blanket is taken away.
That means that the entire news organization has a constituency of one: Pierre Omidyar. If you were an Intercept editor who knows you could never get anywhere near that high salary working anywhere else — and that is true for virtually the entire senior editorial staff at The Intercept other than its Washington Bureau Chief Ryan Grim — you will of course be desperate to keep the sinecure going. That is not really corrupt as much as it is just basic self-preservation. If remaining in Omidyar's good graces is the only way to pay your large mortgage and maintain your lifestyle — which is true for most of them — then that will be all you ever think or care about. And you will know that your ability to keep the money spigot flowing depends on one thing and one thing only: keeping Pierre Omidyar happy or, at the very least, never displeasing him.
Consider the power that bestows on Omidyar in the lives of those dependent on him. He is literally like a god to them: for those unlikely to find any similar position if The Intercept shuts down, his every whim can mean life or death for their careers and their happiness. They wake up knowing every day that one man has the power, on a whim, to destroy their livelihood. That desperate dynamic produces a climate where catering one's worldview and work product to Omidyar's ideological preferences becomes the overarching imperative. The only thing that matters to them in their work is keeping their sole benefactor happy and avoiding his wrath.
I want to avoid the caricature here. This need to please Omidyar is often more subliminal than conscious. There are numerous journalists who work at The Intercept who do great work and rarely think about Omidyar in any conscious or direct way. They produce valuable reporting and investigations. But the inescapable reality is that the senior editorial management absolutely knows that their only real job is to foster a climate that will keep Omidyar happy, which means only hiring or publishing voices that will not offend him, ensuring that The Intercept's political and journalistic posture is aligned with his ideological worldview and, most of all, prohibiting anyone or any journalism from remaining at The Intercept if it strays too far from Omidyar's political project.
And when my journalism and Omidyar's vocally expressed views began to diverge so radically and publicly, that is precisely what they began to do. In response to my increasingly vocal heretical views on Trump, Russia, and Russiagate, The Intercept's senior editors started hiring mainstream journalists from places like The New York Times to do nothing but produce the most hysterical Russiagate fanaticism and anti-Trump agitprop: in other words, they did everything possible to bring The Intercept's journalistic brand in full alignment with Omidyar's Twitter feed and political funding.
Thus did The Intercept begin routinely publishing and aggressively headlining #Resistance dreck from these former New York Times reporters and others under Omidyar-pleasing tabloid headlines like “IS DONALD TRUMP A TRAITOR?” and “Reporters Should Stop Helping Donald Trump Spread Lies About Joe Biden and Ukraine” and “Democrats Need to Wake Up: The Trump Movement Is Shot Through With Fascism,” the latter of which peddled a slew of false claims found in the sewers of anti-Trump Twitter that Trump had ordered “involuntary hysterectomies conducted on people in a migrant detention center” and ignored reports of Russian bounties on the heads of U.S. soldiers. They were one of the outlets which published and ratified the CIA's lie in the weeks before the election that the Biden emails published by The New York Post were "Russian disinformation” (and they are also one of the outlets that has refused even to acknowledge the new book by Politico reporter Ben Schreckinger proving that the documents were authentic and the CIA lied, because they know that their only reader who matters — Omidyar — does not mind that they circulated lies in order to help defeat Trump).
As a reward for these scripts, perfectly tailored to Omidyar's Twitter feed, The Intercept was gifted with appearances on MSNBC's most deranged prime-time shows. Just a couple of months before Chris Hayes hosted New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait to explore whether Trump had been a Kremlin asset since the 1980s, the DNC-loyal host invited James Risen on to discuss his Intercept article accusing Trump of treason:
Though The Intercept was originally designed to be a platform for voices too anti-establishment and radical for mainstream corporate outlets, the site under its new editorial management entirely stopped publishing any writers who could remotely be described that way, relying instead solely on journalists who could be and are published by at least a dozen of other standard, inoffensive left-liberal publications. Ever since I left, there has been barely a syllable published …