- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2023

Conservative media outlets that are struggling as their advertising dollars dry up may have a British-based “disinformation” group tied to left-wing megadonor George Soros in part to blame.

The Global Disinformation Index, a “risk ratings” outfit that has received State Department funding, secretly distributes “blacklists” of right-tilting news organizations to advertising companies, according to the Washington Examiner series “Disinformation Inc.”

Congressional Republicans called for answers Monday from the State Department.

“It ought to scare everybody in this country, regardless of whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, that the government is that involved in censoring speech,” Sen. Eric Schmitt, Missouri Republican, said in an email. “The unholy alliance between government and big tech must be dismantled.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik, New York Republican, said the “State Department should not be funding woke organizations who seek to censor and demonetize conservative outlets.”

“House Republicans will assert our oversight over the State Department’s funding of these type of groups,” she told the Examiner.

The GDI, which has two U.S. nonprofit affiliates, reportedly received more than $300,000 through two State Department-backed entities: the Global Engagement Center, which gave the index about $100,000, and the National Endowment for Democracy, which contributed more than $200,000.

The National Endowment for Democracy is listed on the GDI website as a funder, as is the Open Society Foundations, which Mr. Soros founded as the principal vehicle for donating to his favored causes.

A State Department spokesperson pushed back on the claims, saying that the “Global Engagement Center in no way moderates content on social media platforms; that is not its mission or its intent.”

“The role of the GEC is to identify foreign state and non-state disinformation narratives, trends and techniques aimed at undermining or influencing the policies, security or stability of the United States, U.S. allies and partner nations,” the spokesperson told The Washington Times. 

The department also said that the “Global Disinformation Index was put together for an international partnership of professionals who were looking at which nations were most resistant to disinformation.”

National Endowment for Democracy spokesperson Leslie Aun said her organization gave two grants to GDI, but not to police U.S. political speech.

The grants were “very narrowly focused on an initiative to identify and combat the disinformation flowing from authoritarian regimes, particularly China,” she told The Washington Times.

She said the endowment “did not fund GDI’s work on U.S.-based media” and that her organization’s mandate does not include the United States.

“We did not, would not, cannot fund anything that focuses on the United States. That’s just outside our purview,” Ms. Aun told The Times.

The replacement of paper newspapers with pixels has been both a blessing and a curse for conservative voices, unleashing a flood of outlets challenging liberal media establishment as well as a backlash in the form of “fact-checkers” and “misinformation” raters such as GDI and NewsGuard.

At least one company has taken action in response to the report. The Microsoft-owned advertising platform Xandr suspended its use of the Global Disinformation Index as it conducts an internal review.

“We try to take a principled approach to accuracy and fighting foreign propaganda,” a Microsoft spokesperson told The Times. “We’re working quickly to fix the issue, and Xandr has stopped using GDI’s services while we are doing a larger review.”

Xandr reportedly blocked advertising dollars from reaching conservative websites and created its own list of 39 media outlets labeled “false/misleading,” “reprehensible/offensive” or “Hate Speech.”

The list reads like a who’s-who of right-tilting news and opinion websites, including Breitbart, Daily Caller, Daily Signal, Daily Wire, Drudge Report, Newsmax, RealClearPolitics, SeanHannity.com, Townhall.com, Washington Examiner and The Washington Times.

The conservative Media Research Center said the GDI has three members on its advisory board with ties to Mr. Soros through Open Society Foundations and the Atlantic Council, which he has also helped fund.

“The radical left knows better than anyone that the best way to upend America and destroy freedom is to muzzle the voices of their opposition,” said Dan Schneider, Vice President of MRC Free Speech America and MRC Business.

“They masquerade as defenders of information, but we all know that they’re just authoritarian thugs,” he said.

Founded in 2018, the Global Disinformation Index insists that it adheres to neutrality in its mission “to ensure advertisers money and brands do not end up supporting high risk websites,” but its risk ratings reveal a stark anti-conservative bias.

In its December report, the index rated the “10 riskiest online news outlets” as the New York Post, Reason, RealClearPolitics, Daily Wire, the Blaze, the Media Research Center, One America News Network, the American Conservative, the Federalist, Newsmax and the Spectator.

The index’s “lowest-risk online news outlets” included BuzzFeed News and HuffPost.

GDI Executive Director Clare Melford said in March 2022 that the index has had “a significant impact on the advertising revenue” of sites branded as purveyors of disinformation, which former State Department official Mike Benz described as “devastating.”

“The implementation of ad revenue crushing sentinels like Newsguard, Global Disinformation Index, and the like has completely crippled the potential of alternative news sources to compete on an even economic playing field with approved media outlets like CNN and The New York Times,” Mr. Benz, a former deputy for internal communications and information policy, told the Examiner.

Civil rights lawyer Hans Bader lambasted the GDI as “very dumb.” He said it “has nothing to do with ‘disinformation’ as opposed to blacklisting based on viewpoint.”

Conservative news outlets also unloaded on the index.

New York Post columnist Daniel McCarthy pointed out that none of the media outlets that stoked the now-discredited Trump-Russia collusion narrative was dinged for “disinformation.”

“Government agencies in this country have few powers to suppress journalism and political speech,” he said in a Monday op-ed. “But the First Amendment becomes moot when censorship is outsourced to foreign actors and a small body of politically motivated (or intimidated) firms that control the infrastructure of mass communications,” he said.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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