Why the Left Had to Steal the Right’s Dark-Money Playbook (Bonus Episode)
The sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh spent years studying crack dealers, sex workers, and the offspring of billionaires. Then he wandered into an even stranger world: social media. He spent the past five years at Facebook and Twitter. Now that he’s back in the real world, he’s here to tell us how the digital universe really works. In this pilot episode of a new podcast, Venkatesh interviews the progressive political operative Tara McGowan about her digital successes with the Obama campaign, her noisy failure with the Iowa caucus app, and why the best way for Democrats to win more elections was to copy the Republicans.
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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Welcome to this special bonus episode of Freakonomics Radio. As you probably know, we’ve been expanding the Freakonomics Radio Network, adding new shows now and again. You’re about to hear the pilot episode of what we think might be another new show worth adding. We’d love to hear what you think, so when you’re done, drop us a line at email@example.com.
The first thing you’ll hear is a brief segment in which I interview the host of this new show — a person you may recognize if you’ve read his amazing book Gang Leader for a Day or the chapter in Freakonomics called “Why Do Drug Dealers Live With Their Moms?” That was based on research done by the host of this new show, Sudhir Venkatesh, who during graduate school in Chicago spent several years embedded with a gang whose main business was selling crack cocaine. Hope you enjoy this special episode — and, again, we’d love to hear what you think.
Sudhir VENKATESH: I’m Sudhir Venkatesh and I’m a sociologist at Columbia University.
Stephen DUBNER: So, you’re a sociologist, but you also call yourself an ethnographer. What’s the difference?
VENKATESH: An ethnographer is that fancy academic term. And all it really is, is that I hung out with people for a long period of time.
DUBNER: So, in addition to the crack-selling gang in Chicago, name some other groups that you’ve hung out with over the years.
VENKATESH: I studied sex workers and I studied gun traffickers. And in New York City, when I came here to get a job at Columbia, I began studying the wealthy, the children who were inheriting lots of money — for me, a secret world.
DUBNER: And then around five years ago, if I have the timing right, you wound up embedding yourself in a very different kind of ecosystem, yes?
VENKATESH: I was very surprised to find out that Mark Zuckerberg put Gang Leader for a Day, the book that I wrote, on his monthly reading list in 2015. And that led to a conversation between me and Facebook. And eventually I went over and went into another world that was really pretty secretive for me.
DUBNER: And what did they want from you?
VENKATESH: I was in a part of Facebook called PAC, Protect and Care, and the team there — which is made up of designers and product managers and engineers were there to help deal with the 27 or 28, at that time, problems that caused negative experiences on Facebook. There are some areas where we were better and some areas where we didn’t do so well. So, bullying, harassment, hate speech — I’m not sure we really moved the needle. But we were pretty good at spotting terrorist activity, and it was really quite amazing.
DUBNER: If you were to rate Facebook on its intentions to address these systemic problems with the platform, and the scale went from zero to 10 — zero being “We want to do some really serious hand-waving about addressing these problems,” and 10 being, “We care deeply about each of these problems and we actually want to solve them,” — where do you put them?
VENKATESH: You know, the view from that bubble is always, “We can do it. We’re the smartest people in the room.” And as soon as they find out they need other smart people or this is a lot more complicated, then you start to see their interest wane a little bit. They also are at a place where the business model makes it very hard for them to admit vulnerability once they get that big. There’s just too much working against doing the right thing for society.
DUBNER: So, you went straight from Facebook to Twitter. How would you describe Twitter’s main problems compared to Facebook’s main problems?
VENKATESH: On the one hand, it’s a very simple ecosystem. But it’s an awfully difficult place to try and really effect change because you’re dealing with one of the core issues, which is I think how nice do we really want to be with each other?
DUBNER: There has been pretty sizable backlash against social media in particular, but really the entire digital universe. How deserved would you say it is overall?
VENKATESH: I think it’s necessary because for 20-plus years, the entire industry has gotten away with very minimal oversight and regulation. And I think that’s a real problem. So, I’m really happy that we care. On the other hand, I sometimes feel like a lot of the voices out there — whether scholars, activists, journalists, etc. — are shouting in the wind. And I think they could be helped and empowered by having their cries be a little smarter.
DUBNER: Now that you’ve essentially left that virtual world and emerged back into the real world, you had this idea for a podcast that, I guess as I see it, is a bridge between the two. Why would you say this podcast is particularly important right now?
VENKATESH: There are so many ways in which technology has impacted our life. I mean, it’s everywhere. It’s dating. It’s crime fighting. It’s how we pay for the bus. And I actually think a lot of us can be helped and be empowered if we understand a little bit about how tech works. I think those kinds of companies created platforms, tools, and products that are just out of their control.
DUBNER: Tell us a bit about what kind of people you’ll be speaking with for this podcast.
VENKATESH: Some folks, probably, we may know their name and we may have read their book. I also want to get behind the scenes and talk to the folks that we may not think about. So, the person who’s managing what’s called “trust and safety” in a company, how do they create the policies and enforce them? The designers and the engineers who try to shape our experiences, how do they think about what we want?
DUBNER: The episode we’re about to hear is an interview with the Democratic political operative Tara McGowan — and as much as I personally try to avoid politics and political operatives, I found it absolutely fascinating. Tell us why you chose to interview her for this episode.
VENKATESH: I first met Tara when I left Facebook and I wanted to try to figure out how technology is reshaping our political system. And I was a consultant with Tara. And I thought she would make a really good person to kick off a discussion of politics and technology because on the one hand, she was really good at listening to the opposition and getting insights, and she was simultaneously very critical of her own team. And I wanted someone who had that level of awareness, because I think she might be able to help us not only see the past, but where we’re heading into the future of democracy as well.
DUBNER: A lot of listeners won’t know Tara McGowan by name but if you followed the 2020 presidential election even a little bit, you’ll know about one of the chief mistakes she was involved with — the app that was used to tally Iowa caucus votes, yes?
VENKATESH: Yeah. There was an app that was supposed to magically transform the political experience, and it just didn’t.
DUBNER: And when you say “transform the political experience,” that includes just counting votes, which it also failed to do, yes?
VENKATESH: Yeah. There was a lot of promise there — which is another hallmark of modern technology, is outsized expectations: that it’s supposed to do the ordinary things great and supposed to do the extraordinary things as well, and sometimes it just doesn’t do either. If there’s one thing I could change inside a lot of these companies, it’s a sign — literally a sign — that appears on the wall when you walk into their offices, which says, “Move fast and break things.” I think that’s okay if you’re playing Legos. I’m not sure that’s really what we want if we’re talking about families and democracy and society in general.
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Sometimes what’s new about our digital technology is that it makes even the oldest part of human life feel like uncharted territory. Take politics, as old as human civilization itself, and yet in the last few years, you can’t help but feel we’re in the middle of a revolution, as though we’ve been transported to another planet where the game and the rules of that game have been rewritten. Tara McGowan has been at the center of this revolution — in the U.S. anyway.
She cut her teeth as a journalist working with 60 Minutes and then she grinded away on various political campaigns. Some think of her as the real brains behind Obama’s digital strategy, what catapulted him to victory. In recent years, Tara started a multi-headed political hydra, an organization called Acronym. Acronym’s reach is everywhere, though always on the left side of the spectrum. Tara has built out a massive PAC that executes social-media campaigns in key swing states. She’s got another consulting group in there somewhere. I asked Tara to help us understand how politics have changed, where democracy is heading, and how she got into politics in the first place.
Tara MCGOWAN: I wanted to effect change. Initially I believed that journalism was the best way to do that and to hold great powers accountable. I went to N.Y.U. for journalism and political science. I started interning at 60 Minutes, and then they hired me full-time. I was helping to cover the 2008 presidential election. And I just became fascinated and very swept up in that election. And it was, of course, nothing like political science — learning about game theory and learning about the Electoral College and everything. And I felt so detached from having the impact that I got into journalism to have. And I made a decision after that race to pick up and move to D.C.
I interviewed for the most entry-level position on the Hill as staff assistant for my congressman, Jim Langevin, from Rhode Island. And the chief of staff was really wonderful. I remember her saying, “Look, you’re really overqualified, but Jack Reed, our senior senator, is looking for a deputy press secretary. Would you want me to put your name in the hat?” And I worked in the Senate for about a year and a half before I got offered a job on President Obama’s re-election campaign in Chicago in 2011. And because President Obama’s campaigns were storied for their digital prowess I was suddenly a “digital strategist,” which absolutely has guided the rest of my career.
VENKATESH: When did you start to feel like this is what’s on the horizon, this is what we have to pay attention to? Was there an epiphany moment?
MCGOWAN: There were a number of epiphanies about how my understanding and relationship to digital media, social media, the Internet, was quite different than a lot of people I was working with. But it all stems from the fact that I’m a digital native and probably one of the oldest digital natives. I’m 34. I was on A.O.L. Instant Messenger and in chat rooms at 10 years old.
And I would be asking questions in my role as a deputy press secretary, about why we would spend so much time writing press releases that were not in conversational language whatsoever for reporters and no one would read them, when we had these tools like Facebook and email where we could communicate directly to the senator’s constituents. Why are we going through this bubble, essentially? And it turns out President Trump is the first president we’ve had who really ignores mainstream media, frankly. He understands direct communications and leveraging the tools and channels available to him in very profound ways. And we see the impact of that, which can be good and bad.
VENKATESH: So, you were reporting on Obama’s 2008 campaign, and then you worked on his 2012 campaign from the inside. And at that time, there was a lot of talk about the Democrats having this amazing digital strategy. Were they as good and as innovative as they tended to get credit for, or were they just the first out of the gate?
MCGOWAN: You know, as early as Deval Patrick’s race in Massachusetts, and Senator Kerry’s race, and Howard Dean’s race, all of the stories that I heard always credited Democrats with being the first movers in terms of really leveraging the Internet and email. And so, online fundraising, I think, is the most important piece because that legitimized — at the time it was called “new media,” as a new team and a new department worthy of resourcing on political campaigns because they could earn their keep. And so, that was really what first, I think, got digital into politics.
And Democrats were definitely the first adopters to take advantage of that. And the common thread with all of the largest, most successful digital-first campaigns, it’s that it’s bred out of necessity. There was no clear path to victory for a guy named Barack Obama and I think that’s also true with the really powerful digital-first campaigns of Senator Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. And so, really, when I came onto President Obama’s re-election campaign, the digital team was the largest team from day one, the most well-resourced. And years later, when I went to Priorities USA — which is the largest Super PAC on the Democratic side — there really was a stark difference. They had been a traditional media Super PAC, only investing in television and direct mail until they hired me.
VENKATESH: I think a lot of people would grasp what you mean by digital-first. But could you just explain a bit more what this means on a do-or-die political campaign?
MCGOWAN: For a very long time, television consultants who write television ads tend to be the chief strategists of different advertising programs and campaigns. And they had an immense amount of power and influence. That put digital folks like myself at a kid’s table. And the most cost-effective way to deploy your message at scale has shifted from television and radio to the Internet and social media — and, frankly — peer-to-peer, over text message or WhatsApp. So, that’s shifted everything in a campaign.
So, what it means to be digitally-first is when you need to get media placed in a local market, are you going to send out a press release to a bunch of journalists? Or are you going to target voters in that local community directly with your message through digital ads? When you think about fundraising, are you going to just create a phone list and send that phone list out to volunteers across the country? Or are you going to leverage Facebook to bring in millions of dollars in online donations? And I really thought that we needed to blow up this idea of a digital director in a digital department in order to infuse digital tactics and strategies throughout all elements of the campaign.
VENKATESH: Okay, let’s fast forward to 2016. Now, you were on the Super-PAC side, not on the campaign side. But I’m still curious to know, what do you think happened there?
MCGOWAN: There is a for-profit consultant culture that allows for a lot of failing up. It’s very driven by relationships and nepotism. And my understanding of it of deep reflection of it now is that all of those folks that were at the head of those departments and teams on the Obama campaigns went on to join or start their own for-profit consultancies to do this work on behalf of more campaigns. And in the process of professionalizing it, they weren’t incentivized to innovate anymore. There’s an extraordinary juxtaposition with creating sustainable business models and keeping up with the constant innovation of social media and technology platforms. And you just can’t do it, frankly. You end up selling cookie-cutter products or plans. And that was not good enough.
When you’re in elections this is not about just your bottom line or gradual growth of revenue or product sales. This is a very high-stakes, zero-sum game. Every single dollar matters. Every touch to a voter matters. When I got to Priorities USA, I was the chief strategist, but I had to rely on consultants to create a lot of the ads and to actually distribute them. And really, I just wanted to know that my program was effective and I wasn’t getting a lot of answers. And so I was really disappointed and unsatisfied with how the consultant culture could not really keep up.
So, you need to be on the social media platforms where the majority of people are, and you need to figure out how to communicate your message in a way that’s native to those platforms. It doesn’t mean being something you’re not. It means being yourself but understanding the new medium. Individuals like Donald Trump, but also A.O.C., they have the largest audience because they’re authentic. And the way that they use social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook is authentic to the way that they are designed to be used and how most users use them.
VENKATESH: Could you maybe tell us a little bit about what it’s like to be on the PAC side as opposed to on the campaign side?
MCGOWAN: When you work in Super PACs, your role and responsibility is to monitor what the campaign is doing in the public sphere — because you cannot legally coordinate — and work to fill gaps that the campaign cannot or should not be filling. Whether that means reaching voters in a state that they don’t have the budget to reach, because clearly you can tell from filings they’re not reaching voters there. Or if it means taking on harder issues or communications that would be too risky for a campaign.
And so, of course, I had access, as anyone did, to the information that was put out by the Clinton campaign in 2016. Our team was watching carefully where they were spending, on what media. And so, they did have a huge digital team and program. Facebook opened up so many different ways of thinking about running a smart digital program. And I didn’t see that their playbook for reaching voters was markedly different than it was when I was on the 2012 campaign.
VENKATESH: It must be an almost uniquely frustrating experience to have this knowledge and you also have personal relationships with so many of the people, and yet you’re legally barred from sharing that knowledge with them.
MCGOWAN: To add a personal element to that. My husband was very senior on the Hillary Clinton campaign and we got married during that election and our lawyers actually had a conversation — the campaign’s lawyer and the Super PAC’s lawyer — about our wedding. And it actually came up, “Should we have everyone sign N.D.A.’s at the wedding?” We thankfully did not need to do that. We just did not talk, as we never did that year, about strategy. And frankly, even if we wanted to, I never saw my husband — we lived in different states the entire campaign and very rarely spoke.
VENKATESH: I can recall some of the early discussions we had working together where you were always very sensitive and attuned to your opponent or the people who were doing things differently. Were you always borrowing from them or observing them?
MCGOWAN: I’ve always focused on not just the other side, but what tactics have been successful in building power, whether they are something I would morally agree with or not. And I still feel that Republicans and Democrats approach building power in very different ways. I have always had a very high threshold for risk. And I really felt more — not aligned with how Republicans did it — but basically understanding that if we were ever going to really compete and win, we needed to play the game as they were playing it and not just hope that we could win playing it the way we always had.
VENKATESH: So, just after Trump’s victory in 2016, you wrote this white paper called “Rethinking Investing in Media to Build Political Power.” If I read it correctly, it was a wakeup call for the left. It’s funny because I sometimes feel like writing that kind of a paper after spending all my time in the tech industry. What were you trying to tell the left when you wrote that paper? And did they listen?
MCGOWAN: So, the very, very big idea or case that I wanted to make at that time, and that I have been working on every day since, has been to sort of zoom out and say we’re starting from scratch every election cycle. That talent disperses. The infrastructure, the technology they build, the institutional knowledge — it all gets spread out. Whereas the right had built their own media ecosystem with FOX and talk radio and Breitbart and thousands of online sites and publishers. And Democrats were relying predominantly on paid advertising, and that felt so short-sighted to me. And I really felt a huge gap on the left was a dedicated space or organization that could continually build and build upon institutional knowledge about how to communicate messages in the digital age that we live in.
VENKATESH: One of the things you’ve been concerned about for some time is the amount of money the Trump campaign has been spending on digital advertising and basically, it hasn’t stopped since his first campaign. And spending on digital advertising also provides them with a lot of data, which they then use to refine and improve the performance of their ads. So, it seems like Trump and the Republicans almost have an insurmountable lead in that regard. As a strategist for the other team, what are your thoughts on this?
MCGOWAN: So, I was one of a number of people raising the alarm bells about Trump’s spending online because it was so unprecedented. Essentially, from the second he was inaugurated, he was running his re-election campaign and the majority of his spending online was on data acquisition. It was on petitions to collect email addresses and cell phone numbers and online fundraising, merchandise sales. And the more information any campaign or any company has of individuals, the more sophisticated their targeting of those individuals can be.
VENKATESH: I was working at Twitter when Jack Dorsey decided to ban political ads. And people inside the company were really excited and thought it took a lot of courage. Perhaps so, but I was less sure. I mean, political ads were a small percentage of our revenue at the time, and a lot of the smaller players around the world really relied on them to get their message out. I say this because in the last year or so, it might surprise someone to hear some of the positions that you’ve been taking. Are you seeing something that some of your progressive counterparts are not?
MCGOWAN: Political ads on platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become the scapegoat by journalists and by Democrats and Republicans alike. And they’ve really made political ads the culprit of misinformation spreading online, influencing elections. The vast majority of misinformation that spreads online is organic, which means it is not through paid advertising on these platforms. It is through individuals. It is through media outlets, especially on the right. And so, when people call for these platforms to ban political ads they’re really misunderstanding where misinformation comes from and how it spreads.
And so, I have been outspoken against these political ad bans, not because I run political ads — I do, but I do not have a financial stake or interest in the political ad programs I run. The reason that I call that out is because it is a superficial attempt by these platforms to say that they are solving the problem while they are not actually doing anything meaningful to solve that problem. Facebook recently announced a ban on any new political ads in the final week of the election. And this is something that Democrats were lobbying for. And I very quickly came out against this decision for the reasons I just articulated.
When you ban all political advertisers what you’ve done is you have ceded the platform to the largest pages and accounts on that platform. And the largest pages and accounts on Facebook are right-wing media outlets. So, when you ban political ads on Facebook and do not ban the dissemination of “news or information” from publishers like Fox News and Breitbart and The Daily Wire, you are essentially saying that right-wing media is allowed to spread misinformation in the final week of the election. But the Biden campaign is not allowed to counter that misinformation in real time.
VENKATESH: I would agree with you that there are disparate effects. And these policy decisions inside the company, they don’t affect everyone the same way. And I could imagine someone coming back and saying, “Okay, well, we shouldn’t punish one group for having more subscribers or more followers, etc.”
MCGOWAN: The tricky part is that algorithms on a lot of social media platforms really do prioritize and scale the distribution of salacious content because it tends to get more engagement. Once your video gets 1,000 views, it’s more likely to get a million than a video that gets 100. So, that’s really the dangerous part that I think is the responsibility of social media companies and platforms to solve for. Because that does add gasoline to the fire when there is misinformation or lies that spread, because the truth can be boring. And frankly, Facebook should be able to curb the spread of lies and misinformation in a more effective way. I don’t care if it’s got money running behind it or it’s just organic. It’s the rapid spread of lies that can have real world impacts that I have a problem with.
VENKATESH: Okay, so you’re against banning political advertising, but you’ve also noted that those who spend the most can acquire more data, which puts them at a distinct advantage. What are your thoughts then on changing the way that data can be acquired or used in the first place, perhaps making it so that ads can’t be targeted quite so finely and limiting it to just broad demographic categories like age or location, etc.
MCGOWAN: I believe that efforts should be put elsewhere simply because if you take away the ability to microtarget, which is a very controversial concept, it just means that political campaigns and advertisers will need to spend more money on the platform because they will have to reach a broader audience. So, digital advertising will more similarly operate as television advertising does, where you buy at a broader level. So, the folks that stand to gain the most by eliminating microtargeting are the social media platforms themselves that benefit financially.
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VENKATESH: I want to talk to you about Acronym, which is the organization you founded with the explicit goal of filling some of the gaps you’ve identified on the left side of the political spectrum. Before we dive in, can you give us just a quick explanation of Acronym? Because it’s it’s a pretty complex ecosystem. It’s got a Super PAC. It’s got a number of other companies. And so, how do you explain the structure of how it all works for the uninitiated and why you decided to structure it that way?
MCGOWAN: So, again, taking a page out of the conservatives’ playbook, I read Jane Mayer’s book, Dark Money, on the Koch Brothers, who have invested heavily for years in building for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations and infrastructure on the right. Their money and their efforts were the force behind the Tea Party movement after Obama was elected. And they’d created an ecosystem of different types of entities to do this kind of work. And so, I wanted to really create a space that looked at the world as it was, not as we wanted it to be and think about what the modern playbook was.
Yes, some things taken by what Trump’s campaign did. They really built their campaign in 2016 around Facebook, which is, I believe, the most powerful platform for information dissemination in the world, for better and for worse, and often now for worse. And so, I made it what’s called a 501(c)(4) organization. So, this is what many refer to as a dark-money organization. It’s a nonprofit. And yet, 49 percent of the work that it is able to do is able to influence politics and elections directly, and 51 percent is social welfare, charitable work.
There were three companies Acronym invested in. Now, there are two. One is a digital agency that runs advertising programs and builds out creative for the programs Acronym runs, as well as other mission-aligned progressive organizations. And the other is a for-profit progressive local news network called Courier Newsroom. And I really did that so I could preserve the mission, which is to build power and infrastructure for the progressive movement.
VENKATESH: Clearly, you’ve been inspired by how people on the right have been able to organize discussion about politics, civic issues, and channel that into mobilization. From the spectrum of “I want to play within the rules and do it better” to “I want to change the game itself so we can get money out of politics or we can just reform in ways that we don’t have to compete in this kind of polarized way,” where do you stand when people ask you about the intentions and the motives?
MCGOWAN: The answer is both. They’re very interconnected. I want to build infrastructure and deploy the most effective tactics within the bounds of the law that build power. And with power, we can then reform. You know, I think a lot about moral purity tests, which exist on both sides, I’m sure. But I think that there is danger in focusing too much on what we believe is right or wrong and losing in the process.
VENKATESH: Okay, I’ll get to the Courier newsroom in a bit, but I want to quickly touch upon those other companies that Acronym invests in. One in particular, Shadow, received a lot of attention this year. If I understand correctly, Acronym was an investor in Shadow and Shadow was the company that helped to design the app that was going to do all these wonderful things around the Iowa caucus, make it easier to count votes, give people a better experience.
MCGOWAN: So, we helped incubate Shadow, Inc., which was a progressive technology company. And we did that because they were essentially going to go out of business. They built a peer-to-peer texting app that was on the Hillary Clinton campaign where this team had worked in 2016, and Gerard Niemira, the C.E.O., preserved the team and rebuilt this technology to serve campaigns. And I am not a technologist. I do not have technology experience. This is my first of many rookie mistakes in this process. But what I did have was relationships with investors who believed in me and my risk threshold. I knew that they would also believe in Gerard’s vision, and so I was able to raise money to retain his team in this new company that would be owned majority by Acronym, but Acronym was not the sole investor in the company.
So, the second rookie mistake, I would say, was that because I trust and admire Gerard and his experience greatly, I did not put a great deal of oversight over the company. And really their mission and vision was to be able to — similar to Acronym on the digital-advertising side — fill gaps that other companies weren’t incentivized to fill because they wouldn’t be profitable. And that leads to the crisis that we endured with the Iowa caucus. Shadow was the only company to respond to a request-for-proposal from the Iowa Democratic Party, who, after the rules changed for the Iowa caucus, with great pressure and demand by Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign after 2016, suddenly every caucus location needed to report three different numbers. Historically, they only ever had to report one number in terms of the vote tally, and suddenly they had to report additional tallies in terms of popular vote count in addition to delegate count.
And so, the Iowa Democratic Party wanted to have some sort of app, or solution, to help them tabulate the results in each of the caucus locations because they had never done this and understood very early on that this was going to be a nightmare. And because if anyone has been to an Iowa caucus, it’s already chaos. The question of whether or not Shadow should have applied for this R.F.P. or taken on this contract was certainly never put in front of me. And so, sure, maybe I would have said this feels like high-risk, low-reward. Maybe I would have said this is exactly why Shadow was created, was to take on the hard projects that aren’t profitable because campaigns and Democratic parties need solutions and we’re not evolving fast enough. So, anyway, most people know how the end of the story goes. There was a coding error in the app and it contributed greatly — but it was certainly not the sole factor — to the delay in the reporting of the results of the Iowa caucus.
VENKATESH: You’ve mentioned a few times that you have a strong appetite for risk and you’re okay with failure, you learn from failure. I’m curious to know how that plays out after something like this.
MCGOWAN: I find great strength and resilience through trauma and crisis. And I certainly don’t enjoy it or wish it upon anybody. But it became clear after the fact that I had no business to have oversight of a technology company, No. 1. And No. 2, it was a really important learning moment for me that I certainly can’t solve every problem, nor should I. And that I need to do less and do it better. And so, I made the decision, along with the Acronym board, to divest from Shadow fully so it could carry on and have better support and leadership than I certainly could provide.
VENKATESH: Okay. I want to talk about this fascinating project, Courier Newsroom. If I understand it, it publishes digital newspapers in six key swing states. And you’ve got reporters and editors and, on the face of it, the digital sites that you’ve created look like local news. But I think the intention is that the sites are helping to promote progressive candidates in those states. And so, I’m curious to know how you think about these sites. Is it news? Is it marketing? Are they political instruments? And I wonder if this is really the face of so much of modern media.
MCGOWAN: Courier has seven newsrooms, all staffed by reputable journalists and editors, many of who lost their jobs as local news outlets have been shuttered across the country. And we have been unapologetically transparent about our progressive values and mission. The genesis for Courier Newsroom was actually that white paper about the power and influence of the right-wing media, online and off, and the lack of owned-progressive media that espouses progressive values but maintains and preserves the integrity of journalism and of fact-checking. Part of the genesis was also my frustration with the billions of dollars that are spent and largely wasted on paid advertising in election cycles.
The majority of Americans do not read newspapers. They do not watch the evening news or cable news. Their news consumption is incredibly passive. They are getting their news by scrolling their social-media news feeds or talking to their friends. And that allows misinformation to really have an impact on those Americans, because it is targeted to influence them. And we built Courier to be focused on getting stories and facts and information to voters on social-media news feeds. You know, partisan media is not new. That said, we are in a murky territory in terms of media and news. And I really prefer to live in the world as it exists, not the one that I want it to be, and fight like hell to build the power in order to build the world that I do want.
Local news continues to be where the majority of Americans say they trust their information most. And yet, we have a huge void of it in this country that is only getting worse. State government is where so many decisions that affect our lives are made. And yet, turnout for state elections is abysmal. It’s far worse than national turnout, which isn’t great in America. And there has been a lot of research to show a direct correlation between the presence of local media and civic participation. So, basically, when you don’t have local journalism or local trusted news sources, you are less likely to participate civically in your community.
VENKATESH: You’ve been through a lot of changes over three elections and Acronym has been through changes. What does the future hold for you and the organization you’ve built?
MCGOWAN: I mean, the things that I know for certain are that I personally have no interest in running political independent-expenditure programs any longer. I believe that they are too short-sighted and they do not lend themselves to building real communications infrastructure that talks to voters every day, every daywhich is what we need. I don’t know if there is a real need for Acronym to exist after this election. And that’s something I frankly haven’t had very much time to think about, and I certainly will after the election.
Do I believe that there need to be permanent institutions to drive innovation when it comes to technology and voter outreach and contact in democratic politics? Absolutely. Will the technological and media landscape look different in two years than it does now? Of course it will. So, what will the needs be? Courier is a different story. Courier was always, always built to become permanent progressive media infrastructure that, yes, will continue to evolve in the same ways that our communication and media consumption habits evolve.
It is such a critical and essential piece of infrastructure that we’ve been lacking on the left. It has also suffered from great reputational damage because of Iowa and its affiliation to me. And so, one thing I can say for certain is that I will be doing everything I can to make sure that Courier has the opportunity to be as successful as possible. And so, if that means me winding down Acronym or leaving Acronym or leaving Courier, I will do what is best for Courier. And that’s what I’ll really be ruminating on after this election.
VENKATESH: I want to step back and ask you to think where we are headed in terms of democracy and elections in general. And the thought that comes to my mind is motivated by an essay of a sociologist named Robert Putnam that was written probably 20-some years ago entitled Bowling Alone. And the thesis is relatively simple in that, at that time, Putnam was arguing that we don’t have a healthy civic life because we don’t have what he called a healthy associational life. We don’t have healthy politics, we don’t have a healthy public discourse, because we’re not coming together as we often did.
The bowling alley was the metaphor more than the real place, I think, in his essay. We’re not forming community clubs. Some people have thought about that from the standpoint that we have to go back to a pre-digital way of engaging one another. We need to do more things in real life. Other people have said, “No, it’s just we just need to change how we think about technology and use it to foster more of those sorts of healthy interactions.” When you step back and you think about the impact of technology in general, has it been in itself a corrosive force? Or is it just— we’re just using it the wrong way?
MCGOWAN: I think with every technological revolution you see the worst possible outcomes or impacts before it sort of rights itself, or things like government regulation or accountability come into play. And there’s just not going to be a silver bullet. If you shut down Facebook tomorrow, which I think a lot of people would applaud, it wouldn’t solve the problem. There would be another Facebook or another thing. And I really do believe that social media has reinforced and rooted all of us in our existing belief systems, and made it more difficult to empathize with other people. And I think above anything else in this world, we need empathy right now more than ever in our politics and in our daily lives.
And I don’t know the solution to bring us back there, but something that personally I have been really inspired by in this past year is working with Republicans who have come out against Trump. And I certainly don’t share a number of their values or positions, but we have been able to build friendships and partnerships and work together and laugh together. And I really do believe that that’s the glue that we need to restrengthen, is the ability to see people for who they are as people and understand that we can have differences, but that we can work together. And if we can bring that into social media, we can bring that into our politics, I think that we would be in a much better state.
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That was Tara McGowan, the founder of Acronym. I have to say, I really like Tara’s optimism. I share a lot of it at times anyway. But it makes me think of a debate among social scientists who study democracy. There’s one school of thought that says, “Hey, let’s really eliminate hate speech and uncivil behavior towards one another.” Another says, “You know, we’re always going to have that kind of behavior. We’re always going to have conflict. So, let’s help people resolve the problems after they occur.” And as someone who works inside tech companies, I thought of this difference in approach after listening to Tara.
You need a healthy dose of optimism to make these platforms serve democracy, for sure. But Tara’s organization also faces a conundrum. She’s drawing on the same techniques that create a polarized and often uncivil environment as a means to improve that environment. Is that really possible, or is it just making things worse? Well, wherever you land on that question, one thing for certain is that we’re all going to learn a lot in the coming days and weeks ahead. There’s probably a lot of surprises in store for us.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Matt Hickey. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mary Diduch, Corinne Wallace, Zack Lapinski, and Daphne Chen. Our intern is Emma Tyrrell; we had help this week from James Foster. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, by Sudhir Venkatesh.
- Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by Jane Mayer
- Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert D. Putnam.