How one of America’s premier data monarchs is funding a global information war and shaping the media landscape
Through his purchase of influence over the daily flow of information to American media consumers, a dizzying array of connections to the national security state, and a media empire that shields him from critical scrutiny, Pierre Omidyar has become one of the world’s most politically sophisticated data monarchs.
by Alexander Rubinstein and Max Blumenthal
A select group of national news “stakeholders” gathered at an undisclosed location for what was described as a “semi-secret” workshop somewhere in Canada on January 26. The meeting had been convened to determine how and to whom a “news industry bailout” of $645 million in Canadian government subsidies to private and supposedly independent media outlets would be disbursed. It was a striking event that signaled both the crisis of legitimacy faced by mainstream media and the desperate measures that are being proposed to answer it.
Jesse Brown, a Canadian journalist who participated in the meeting, complained that the first thing he noticed about it “was that one major public ‘stakeholder’ wasn’t represented: the public.” Inside what amounted to a smoke filled room that was off limits to most Canadian citizens, Ben Scott — a former Obama administration official who also served in Hillary Clinton’s State Department — presided over the discussions. Today, as the director of policy and advocacy for the Omidyar Network, Scott works for one of the most quietly influential billionaires in helping to shape the media landscape and define the craft of journalism itself.
His boss is Pierre Omidyar, the ebay founder best known for his sponsorship of The Intercept, a flashy progressive publication that possesses the classified documents exfiltrated by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Unlike rival Silicon Valley billionaires Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos, and Eric Schmidt, Omidyar has mostly managed to keep his influential role in media below the radar. And while he directs his fortune into many of the same politically strategic NGOs and media outlets that George Soros does in hotspots around the globe, he has never been subjected to the public scrutiny and often ugly attacks that dog Soros. And yet Samantha Power, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN and liberal interventionist guru, has explicitly praised Omidyar as someone who is following in the footsteps of Soros.
The almost total absence of critical coverage that Omidyar enjoys is partly the product of his aversion to publicity. Unlike Soros, who seems to yearn for the media limelight, Omidyar is an eccentric figure who owns a “safe house” in the wilds of the American West; he interacts with business partners in virtual-reality simulations he funds, and has been magnetized by New Age gurus. But the free pass Omidyar has received from the media is also a testament to how much money he has channeled into it – as well into the organizations that ostensibly exist to keep it honest.
While backing media outlets around the world that produce news and commentary, Omidyar supports a global cartel of self-styled fact-checking groups that determine which outlets are legitimate and which are “fake.” He has also thrown his money behind murky initiatives like the non-profit backing New Knowledge, the data firm that waged one of the most devious disinformation campaigns in any recent American election campaign; and he is a key backer of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ), the outfit that holds the Panama Papers and oversees the strategic dissemination of that leaked trove of financial files to hand-picked journalists.
At the base of this vast media empire is a nepotistic culture that has seen the beneficiaries of Omidyar’s funding come in for gushing praise from the same fact-checking organizations he supports, while the journalists nurtured by his donations reap high-profile awards from the Omidyar-sponsored Committee to Protect Journalists. Last November, Omidyar backed the release of a documentary hyping up the journalists that helped expose the Panama Papers, and he is also involved in a feature film starring Meryl Streep about the leaked documents and the heroic reporters covering them. The conflicts of interests created under the billionaire’s watch are many but, as with his own political activities, they have been scrutinized by only a handful of journalists.
Behind the image he has cultivated of himself as a “progressive philanthropreneur,” Omidyar has wielded his media empire to advance the Washington consensus in strategic hotspots around the globe. His fortune helped found an outlet to propel a destabilizing coup in Ukraine; he’s helped establish a network of anti-government youth activists and bloggers in Zimbabwe; and in the Philippines he has invested in an anti-government news site that is honing corporate surveillance techniques like a “mood meter…to capture non-rational reactions.” Meanwhile, he has partnered closely with the leading arms of U.S. soft power, from the U.S. Agency for International Aid and Development (USAID) to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) — acting as a conduit for information warfare-style projects in countries around the world.
Omidyar’s political agenda came into sharper focus last May when he began funding the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a pet project of neoconservative operative Bill Kristol that has stoked public fear of Russian infiltration of social media. This December, it appears that Omidyar’s donations helped Kristol launch a new online magazine called The Bulwark — rebranding the defunct Weekly Standard, which had served as the banner publication of the neocon movement and a central organ for promoting America’s wars. As usual, the billionaire’s activities were ignored in progressive media, leaving the critical coverage to a few right-wing outlets frustrated with Kristol’s anti-Trump crusading.
Omidyar’s support for the same neocon guru who oversaw the publication of an article branding NSA spying whistleblower Edward Snowden as a “traitor” should place the ebay founder’s acquisition of the Snowden files in a disturbing light. By establishing The Intercept and recruiting the journalists who possessed Snowden’s leaks, the billionaire effectively privatized the files. Not only did this delay their release, it denied the public access to the information in order to supply his stable of hired reporters with exclusive scoops that continue to appear years after they were leaked. To this day, only a minuscule percentage of the Snowden files have been made public and, for whatever reason, none of those that have been released relate to ebay or its assorted business interests.
While hoarding this valuable trove, Omidyar has forged relationships with the very same private military contractor that Snowden fought to expose. Two years after founding The Intercept, Omidyar welcomed a man named Robert Lietzke to the Omidyar Fellows program. Lietzke is no small character — he happened to have been Snowden’s former boss, reportedly one of “three principals [running] day to day operations” at the Hawaii branch of the Booz Allen Hamilton defense firm where Snowden toiled as an NSA contractor.
The Omidyar Group did not respond to requests for comment on Omidyar’s involvement with the publication of the Snowden documents. Additionally, The Intercept did not respond to questions about the extent of control Omidyar’s First Look Media enjoys over the Snowden archive.
Through his purchase of influence over the daily flow of information to American media consumers, a dizzying array of connections to the national security state, and a media empire that shields him from critical scrutiny, Omidyar has become one of the world’s most politically sophisticated data monarchs.
Yasha Levine, the author of Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet, told MintPress: “In today’s backlash over Silicon Valley’s contracts with American military and intelligence agencies, people are focused on Facebook, Google and Amazon — while Pierre Omidyar’s eBay has been entirely ignored. But Omidyar has been at the forefront of building out Silicon Valley’s global private-public surveillance apparatus. For the past decade Omidyar has quietly worked to expand eBay’s privatized surveillance-state model beyond online sales and into elections, media, transportation, education, finance, as well as government administration. His vehicle for that: the Omidyar Group, an investment vehicle that bankrolls hundreds of startups, business and non-profits around the world.”
Omidyar’s political empire consists of a web of organizations overseen by its center of administration: the Omidyar Group. Each outfit appears to be an independent entity with its own staff and directors. Taken together, however, these organizations pursue a mission that reflects the vision of the billionaire behind it. Below are the seven initiatives spun out of the Omidyar Group:
Ulupono Initiative: This group seems to be focused on supporting mundane activities, mostly centered in Omidyar’s home state of Hawaii. However, a look under the hood reveals national security-state connections. For example, Ulupono sponsors a Defense Department gala for contractors like Snowden’s former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton. What’s more, a former VP at Booz Allen, Kyle Datta, is also a general partner of Ulupono.
Humanity United: This NGO was founded after the largest human trafficking scandal in U.S. history (detailed later in this investigation) was exposed on the Maui Pineapple farm in which Omidyar had invested. Ostensibly formed to combat slavery, Humanity United has also been used to fund The Guardian, a liberal British newspaper that has provided positive coverage to and collaborated with numerous Omidyar-backed initiatives.
Hopelab: An initiative that focuses on encouraging a “behavioral change” and “mindshift” in teen and young-adult cancer survivors through “positive psychology skills” like “practicing gratitude,” “mindfulness,” and “random acts of kindness.” The group’s mission reflects the New Age sensibility of Omidyar and his wife, Pam, as well as the billionaire’s interest in potentially profitable data-gathering ventures. (Medical data is at the center of an ongoing debate about the use of artificial intelligence in various industries.)
Luminate: Luminate has doled out $314 million to 236 organizations around the world. As outlined earlier, this organization is run by Ben Scott, a former Obama administration official who also served in Hillary Clinton’s state department. Scott led the previously noted “semi-secret” January 26 workshop where Canadian news “stakeholders” discussed the government’s plan for a “news industry bailout” of $645 million in subsidies. A day earlier, the Bureau of Investigative Journalists announced a $1 million contribution from Luminate over the next two years. Luminate is Omidyar’s central hub for funding a cartel of fact-checking outlets around the globe. It continues to fund the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League after the Omidyar Network provided seed money for the group’s Silicon Valley internet monitoring center.
Omidyar Network: With offices in Washington, Silicon Valley, and six foreign countries, the Omidyar Network propagates the neoliberal ideology of its billionaire namesake through “impact investing” and a “property rights” initiative. Outside the U.S., the Omidyar Network funds an array of foreign media outlets, like Ukraine’s Hromadske and the Philippines-based Rappler, that have participated in pro-Western information warfare-style campaigns against rogue governments. In Zimbabwe, where the Omidyar Network supports a series of anti-government youth organizing initiatives through the Magambe Network, an Omidyar employee was arrested, accused of attempting to stir up a revolt through online organizing, and ultimately released (the incident is detailed later in this article). This February 12, Rappler editor-in-chief Maria Ressa was arrested as well, accused of “cyber-libel” by the Filipino government for a 2012 article. The Omidyar Network and the Omidyar-funded Committee to Protect Journalists have set up a $500,000 legal defense fund for Ressa.
First Look Media: This organization is the main arm for supporting the cutting-edge media projects produced under Omidyar’s watch. Besides The Intercept, First Look funds a documentary division called Field of Vision that has overseen films about high profile journalists. Past productions include Risk, a negative portrayal of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange that prompted Wikileaks lawyers to accuse its director, Laura Poitras, of “undermin[ing] WikiLeaks just as the Trump administration has announced that it intends to prosecute its journalists, editors and associates.” A Field of Vision documentary on the Panama Papers functioned as a PR vehicle for the Omidyar-funded International Consortium of Investigative Journalism that holds the documents, and features journalist Luke Harding in its trailer. Harding is the Russia-obsessed Guardian correspondent who recently fabricated a report on meetings between Assange and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. First Look also sponsors the for-profit studio Topic, which is producing another film on the Panama Papers, The Laundromat, starring Meryl Streep and Antonio Banderas.
Democracy Fund: The main arm of Omidyar-backed activist media initiatives, this group funds a collection of groups like the Center for Public Integrity that advocate transparency in politics. At the same time, the Democracy Fund backs Bill Kristol’s neoconservative mini-empire, providing support to his new Cold War vehicle, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, and providing what appears to be the seed money for The Bulwark.
This investigation will peel back the image Omidyar has cultivated as an altruistic innovator advancing public accountability and media integrity, revealing the unsettling reality of a corporate machine fueled by his free-market ideology and raw imperial might. It all begins with a curious story about his wife’s Pez dispensers.
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