“The best antidote to disinformation,” McGowan says, “is increasing the volume of good, factual information” in the places where low-quality information is spreading. It’s a stark departure from the assumption long held in Congress, Silicon Valley, and European capitals that the answer is content moderation by the platforms themselves. Damon McCoy, an engineering professor at NYU, helps run the school’s Cybersecurity for Democracy project, which tries to identify and offer solutions to vulnerabilities in online platforms that let misinformation spread. “One of the things that’s starting to dawn on us,” he says, “is that misinformation takes hold where there’s a lack of credible news sources.” In those news deserts, what people find “is fly-by-night, opportunistic misinformation and disinformation campaigns.”
McCoy says injecting local news into those information vacuums makes sense to him, but he points out the obvious catch: Local journalism isn’t cheap. The free market has largely failed to pay for it, so McGowan has found a way to pull money from the political realm to help foot the bill. For now.
Which raises the question of what funders want. Dmitri Mehlhorn is a political adviser to Reid Hoffman, the venture capitalist and LinkedIn cofounder. Shortly after Trump took office the two started a funding group called Investing in US, aimed at funding entrepreneurs on the left. Mehlhorn has argued that Trump was the master manipulator of a press that bent over backward to prove its objectivity. Like McGowan, Mehlhorn gets criticized for using tactics that “might cause us to become like those we are fighting,” he says. But he thinks experimentation is necessary to get at “the low-information voters Tara is trying to reach.”
McGowan, for her part, worries that donors like Hoffman will judge the threat of Trump as over and move on, taking their money with them. So far, Courier says it has 900,000 subscribers across Facebook, Instagram, and its email lists, with more than 35 journalists—including about a dozen on a central team supporting the local newsrooms—pumping out some 400 pieces of content a week. But McGowan knows she’ll have to go far bigger to justify everything she and others have been investing in Courier.
If Good Information’s strategy seems to stand on wobbly ground, there’s a reason. McGowan’s project perches atop a series of complex bets—all of which need to pay off for her to succeed.
Her first and biggest wager is that news consumption can shape how people vote. It’s informed by a landmark 2006 study on what its authors called the Fox News effect. The researchers found that once the 24-hour-a-day conservative cable channel showed up in markets across the country, its steady drip of coverage was enough to convince 200,000 people to vote Republican who otherwise wouldn’t have—enough to make George W. Bush president.
Her next bet has longer odds but is backed up anecdotally and by top Democrats. The idea is that Republicans have spent decades studying the news consumption habits of would-be voters and building media relationships with them through wildly popular sites like The Daily Wire, which has about 33 million monthly visitors, and Breitbart, which has roughly 80 million. Democrats have nothing even close—the biggest might be MSNBC.com, with about 22 million monthly visitors. Jason Goldman is a former Twitter executive and White House chief digital officer who says that’s the reason he joined Good Information’s advisory committee. “There’s a whole world of voters we’re just not talking to,” he says.