The mission of Group Nine Media, the company that operates NowThis News, “is to tell great stories that spark action and make a real difference” on “the platforms where young people spend the majority of their time.”
Translation: The company wants to use online media to turn children toward its favored political causes.
Accuracy in Media has shown how NowThis leverages its content to help Democrats and progressive advocacy and exposed its link to MTV News, which filled that role in the days before social media. One figure who deserves a closer look, however, is NowThis founder Kenneth Lerer.
Lerer took a turn toward the political when he exited a very wealthy man from the crucible of AOL-Time Warner and started a gun-control website, StoptheNRA.com, in 2003. Thus inducted into the world of websites, he helped found HuffPost as a left-wing answer to The Drudge Report.
He emerged from that experience with the lesson that building infrastructure for the left-wing movement could also be profitable when AOL bought HuffPo for $315 million in 2011 and he banked a healthy cut to build on his fortune. Around the same time, he started Internet investment firm Lerer Ventures with his son Ben (now CEO of Group Nine Media) and HuffPost CEO Eric Hippeau.
NowThis began as a venture of that firm, with a strategic partnership with BuzzFeed, another youth-focused media site funded by Lerer, who served as chairman for a decade. Both companies focus on creating viral messages to capture a young audience, and both have a predictably partisan, left-wing tilt.
This tilt is reflected in Lerer’s political funding, too. According to OpenSecrets.org, Lerer has invested $566,630 directly into politics. (This assumes there is only one Democrat mega-donor named Kenneth Lerer in New York.) With the exception of a $500 donation (his smallest) to John McCain in 2000, every dollar has gone to Democrats or related groups.
Writing for the Washington Examiner in 2013, columnist Timothy Carney questioned whether Lerer’s threat no longer to help fund the campaigns of any politicians who didn’t support expanded background checks for gun purchases was tantamount to bribery. That same year, the progressive Daily Kos lauded Lerer’s StoptheNRA site in terms that sound very much like the investment mogul’s media ventures, writing that it was “jam-packed with videos, news and action links about guns, as well as a place to sign up and participate.”
“The point of StopTheNRA is to post and create viral content and put it all in one place to bring ongoing attention to the outrageous positions of the NRA and to continue to bring pressure on the issues,” Lerer told the Washington Post.
While his political donation pledge may not have amounted to bribery, the overlapping investment, media, and political strategies of Kenneth Lerer raise serious questions, given the current landscape of laws around political donations and donor disclosure, not to mention concerns about misinformation on social media.
Are the activities of his companies not political donations because they are designed to make money? Is the clear path to helpful coverage and direct donations for politicians willing to tow Lerer’s line not bribery because his personal profits align with his ideology? Do the videos posted by NowThis evade electioneering-disclaimer laws because they’re presented as infotainment rather than as political ads?
As the ethos of information technology innovation seeps into politics and the culture war, these questions need to be asked, and NowThis stands as a helpful case study.