eBay founder Pierre Omidyar pledges $100m to fight ‘fake news’ and hate speech

One of the first contributions, $4.5m, will go to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the Washington-based group behind last year’s Panama Papers investigation

Margaret Sullivan
Wednesday 05 April 2017 16:58 BST
The 49-year-old Iranian American businessman, born in France, was the chairman of eBay from 1998 to 2015
The 49-year-old Iranian American businessman, born in France, was the chairman of eBay from 1998 to 2015

The philanthropic organisation established by eBay founder Pierre Mr Omidyar will contribute $100m (£80m) to support investigative journalism, fight misinformation and counteract hate speech around the world.

One of the first contributions, $4.5m, will go to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the Washington-based group behind last year’s Panama Papers investigation, which revealed offshore businesses and shell corporations, some of which were used for purposes such as tax evasion.

“We think it’s really important to act now to keep dangerous trends from becoming the norm,” Stephen King, who heads the Omidyar Network’s civic engagement initiative, told The Washington Post in the philanthropic group’s first public comments on the three-year funding commitment. The Silicon Valley-based group will make the official announcement Wednesday at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford.

In an interview, Mr King referred to “an urgent need” and said the $100m is “the largest-ever contribution” of its kind.

Other early recipients will include the Anti-Defamation League, the Washington organisation devoted to fighting anti-Semitism worldwide. ADL will use the Omidyar money to build “a state-of-the-art command center” in Silicon Valley to combat the growing threat posed by hate online.

Another will be the Latin American Alliance for Civic Technology, which promotes civic engagement and government accountability in Latin America. It will receive $2.9m from the network.

Gerard Ryle, director of the ICIJ, said the money will allow him to hire more reporters, adding to a staff of 13, and expand his data team with more engineers.

“We’ve been operating on a shoestring, so this is a huge help,” Ryle said. The funding, he added, is “hands-off money” that says, in essence, “Do what you want and we’ll back you.”

Pierre Omidyar, who was not available to comment for this article, “has been very involved” in the plans for the funding commitment, Mr King said, adding, “These are issues he cares deeply about.”

The 49-year-old Iranian American businessman, born in France, was the chairman of eBay from 1998 to 2015 and has funded media-related organisations and initiatives.

Mr Omidyar became a billionaire at age 31 with eBay’s initial public offering in 1998. He and his wife, Pamela Kerr Omidyar, established the Omidyar Network in 2004.

In 2013, he announced the creation of the Intercept, a journalism site focused on transparency, civil liberties and national security; it was founded by journalists Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras.

Mr Omidyar had earlier founded Honolulu Civil Beat, an online news service in Hawaii with an investigative focus.

He was an executive producer of “Spotlight,” the film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal. He helped finance the film, which won the Academy Award for best picture in 2016, through his company First Look Media.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy, which ranks the country’s top 50 philanthropists, put the Omidyars at No. 8 in February. They were among four of the first nine spots held by what the publication calls “tech giants,” including Bill and Melinda Gates. Bill Gates is the founder of Microsoft.

The newly announced funding is intended to address “a worrying resurgence of authoritarian politics that is undermining progress toward a more open and inclusive society,” said Omidyar Network managing partner Matt Bannick.

The network is also concerned about the declining trust in democratic institutions around the world, including the news media, he said.

“Increasingly, facts are being devalued, misinformation spread, accountability ignored and channels that give citizens a voice withdrawn,” he said. “These trends cannot become the norm.”

In a statement, the network’s representatives identified recent events that they say have worsened the erosion of public trust, among them the debate leading to Britain’s vote to exit the European Union, the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, the US presidential election and “ongoing corruption globally.”

“At a time when autocrats, demagogues, criminals, dodgy businessmen and other shady characters are seeking to enrich and empower themselves at the expense of society, it is more important than ever that journalists can remain the world’s independent eyes and ears,” Mr Ryle said.

The funding builds on the $220m the Omidyar Network has committed over the past decade, aimed at encouraging government accountability and transparency, Mr Bannick said. Recipients have included the Committee to Protect Journalists; Code for Africa, a civic watchdog group; Chequeado, a Latin American fact-checking site; and News Deeply, an online news site that covers global issues.

The Omidyar funding comes as news companies are seeing a surge in online subscriptions and as nonprofit journalism entities such as ProPublica, news literacy groups and fact-checking organisations are benefiting from a spike in donations.

On Monday, a group including Facebook and Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, announced the News Integrity Initiative, a $14m effort to advance news literacy and increase trust in journalism. It will be based at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism in Manhattan.

And last month, the Democracy Fund and First Look Media, both founded by Mr Omidyar, announced that they would award $12m to news organisations including the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica.

Despite the size of the $100m Omidyar Network plan, “it’s not going to solve the problem,” Mr King said. “Restoring faith in accuracy and truth, restoring trust in responsible media — it’s obviously a big job.”

Washington Post

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