Too Close For Comfort: How Are $75M Acronym Super PAC, David Plouffe, Zuckerberg And Pete Buttigieg Connected?

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Written by Dana Sanchez
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Iowa’s tally-by-app didn’t work, but Pete Buttigieg started strong in the presidential caucus manual count. He is thought to have the support of big tech. Then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg takes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on a tour of South Bend, Indiana, 2017. Screenshot from WSBT-TV video

Democrats planned to record votes using a smartphone app that has been blamed for breaking the Iowa presidential caucuses. The app was developed by Shadow, a progressive startup managed by a 3-year-old nonprofit called Acronym.

David Plouffe, former Obama presidential advisor and campaign manager, left the White House to head up policy — essentially to run political campaigns — for Uber and Facebook’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. In 2019, Plouffe joined the board of directors of Acronym.

Acronym says its affiliated PAC, Pacronym, helped elect 65 progressive candidates across the country in 2018 with new tech and digital-first strategies to register and turn out voters, according to the Acronym website.

In January 2019, we invested in Shadow, a tech company focused on enabling organizers to run smarter campaigns. Acronym is also an investor in Courier Newsroom, a digital-first local media company and Lockwood Strategy, a digital strategy firm.

Acronym

Acronym is led by co-founder Tara McGowan, a former journalist who also previously served as digital producer for Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, Bloomberg reported. Acronym has about 50 employees, according to LinkedIn, including former employees from Facebook, Amazon, Pandora and political campaigns.

In November, McGowan announced plans to spend $75 million in anti-Trump ads ahead of the 2020 election. Since its founding, Acronym and affiliated organizations — political action committee Pacronym, consulting firm Lockwood Strategy, and a network of so-called independent digital news outlets — have reached the pinnacle of Democratic digital politics, Daily Beast reported. They’ve attracted huge investment from Silicon Valley and been heralded as the antidote to perceived Republican digital dominance since 2016.

“But in trying to take on such a wide swath of digital political roles, Acronym has also been drawn into roles that appear to be in conflict: not just political vendor and vote tabulator, but also ostensibly-independent media mogul and Democratic activist,” Daily Beast reported. 

In addition to Plouffe, Acronym recently brought on board James Barnes, a former Facebook employee and former Republican credited with helping Donald Trump win the White House. Now a registered a Democrat, Barnes said he’ll use the digital ad strategies he used for the Trump campaign to get Trump out of office in 2020, WSJ reported.

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Barnes gives Democrats a secret weapon, Plouffe told WSJ. “He understands the most dominant platform in politics exceedingly well … He thinks differently from someone who grew up in politics a decade or more ago.”

Facebook CEO Zuckerberg spent time in 2017 with then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg, getting a tour from the mayor and live-streaming it on Facebook. They both attended Harvard, and Buttigieg was friends with two of Zuckerberg’s roommates. He was also one of Facebook’s first 300 users, according to Bloomberg.

Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, privately recommended candidates for tech jobs in the Buttigieg presidential campaign. Two former Facebook staffers joined the Buttigieg campaign — evidence that the Facebook CEO actively helped a presidential campaign, according to Bloomberg. A number of high-ranking Facebook executives have donated to Buttigieg including David Marcus, (he leads Facebook’s cryptocurrency efforts), Naomi Gleit and Chris Cox, former chief product officer and close friends with Zuckerberg.

Unlike Elizabeth Warren, whom Zuckerberg considers an existential threat to Facebook, Buttigieg would be “an existential asset to Facebook,” Noam Cohen wrote for Wired. “They share a persona: the confident, disruption-peddling wonder-kid with a modern startup mentality,” Cohen wrote.

Although Buttigieg floated regulations for big tech, he has become a darling of Silicon Valley Democrats, repeatedly returning there for fundraisers, Bloomberg reported. “He’s been more apprehensive about breaking up big tech companies than some of his Democratic counterparts, saying the issue of monopolies extends beyond tech.”

Results from the first-in-the-country voting event for the 2020 election are still unknown after Iowa officials reported irregularities with the data from the app and were forced to switch to manual counting. 

However, Buttigieg was leading Bernie Sanders by 1.8 points with 62 percent of Iowa precincts reporting, according to the New York Times. The returns showed Buttigieg with 26.9 percent followed by Bernie Sanders (25.1 percent), Elizabeth Warren (18.3 percent), Joe Biden (15.6 percent) and Amy Klobuchar (12.6 percent).

“I wonder if James Barnes is helping Mayor Pete inside Acronym?” Jamarlin Martin tweeted.

Acronym insists it is not a tech provider and does not have any information about what went wrong in Iowa. Its website says it builds tech infrastructure.

The Department of Homeland Security offered to help the DNC and the Iowa Democrat party ahead of the caucuses to make sure the new technology was implemented smoothly, TownHall reported. The DNC refused testing, as was their right, in an effort to ensure voting and results were secure. 

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“We don’t see any malicious cyber activity going on,” DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf told Fox News. “No one hacked into it, so this is more of a stress or a load issue, as well as a reporting issue in Iowa … What I would say is given the amount of scrutiny that we have on election security these days, this is a concerning event.” 

The Wall Street Journal reported concerns about Acronym’s Shadow app on Jan. 26. Democrat party leaders said that the mobile app would make reporting faster and easier from 1,700 caucus sites. Critics were concerned about the reliability of the app amid warnings that hackers could try to disrupt the 2020 elections.

The idea of an app for tallying votes is a “security nightmare,” said Douglas Jones, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa, who has studied election security. Cellphones are difficult to protect against all possible threats, he said.

“It’s not crazy to accept the possibility that the $75M superPac with anonymous donors is a David Plouffe/Mayor PETE/Zuckerberg front group with a strategic agenda, not ‘for the little guy.'” Martin tweeted.

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