Two high-profile Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate, both of them close to tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, are supporting an effort to merge former President Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen 2020 election with accusations of meddling against Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
In Arizona, Senate candidate Blake Masters said voters should “elect people who will tell you the truth.”
But Masters has made a falsehood part of his candidacy. “I think Trump won in 2020,” he said in a recent video.
Masters and J.D. Vance, a Republican running for Senate in Ohio, are seeking together to repackage Trump’s deception in a new narrative. Both are backed by $10 million from Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and data mining company Palantir Technologies.
Masters co-wrote a book with Thiel and is COO of Thiel’s investment firm. Vance worked for Thiel after publishing “Hillbilly Elegy,” his bestselling 2016 memoir, and raised money from Thiel to start a venture capital firm.
Masters and Vance have jettisoned the wild and debunked allegations of outright fraud and moved on to a new conspiracy theory: that Zuckerberg spent hundreds of millions to “buy the presidency for Joe Biden.”
It’s an allegation that has shown some purchase among the GOP’s pro-Trump grassroots. The Republican Party, which has historically been amenable to the interests of big business, is still in the throes of the former president’s trademark populism. And Trump still insists that the 2020 election was illegitimate, leading even his more sober-minded supporters to try and justify that thoroughly debunked idea.
Since the election, Trump and his allies have accused Big Tech — major Silicon Valley firms like Google, Twitter and Facebook — of intervening on Biden’s behalf. Conservatives have already alleged for years that these companies were actively trying to muzzle the right, and incidents like Twitter’s temporary blocking of a story about Hunter Biden’s laptop have served as a rallying cry for these complaints.
But there is little discussion on the right of how disinformation and lies — terms that are sometimes abused — are artificially amplified in ways that divide friends, neighbors and families, bringing fame and fortune to those willing to play the demagogue.
Yet were it not for an early investment from Thiel, the Facebook we know today might not even exist. In 2004 he became the company’s first outside investor, giving Zuckerberg’s nascent behemoth a much-needed dose of capital and credibility. Even as he propels the candidacies of Masters and Vance — who are both seeking to blame Facebook’s CEO for buying the election — Thiel still sits on Facebook’s board of directors.
Thiel’s support of Masters and Vance has created an unusual dynamic where two first-time candidates, campaigning for federal office at opposite ends of the country, appear to be something like running mates.
“Tech billionaire Peter Thiel is going all-in to support two of his proteges’ campaigns for the US Senate — and his plan involves swanky California dinners with high-dollar donors,” read a New York Post story last month. “Rise of a megadonor: Thiel makes a play for the Senate,” blared a Politico headline in May.
Masters and Vance, for their part, don’t seem to mind being grouped together. In October, they outlined their allegations against Zuckerberg — and against Big Tech more broadly — in a New York Post article they authored together.
“Facebook — both the product and the wealth generated for its executives — was leveraged to elect a Democratic president,” Masters and Vance wrote. “At a minimum, the company’s leaders should be forced to answer for this before a congressional committee."
The pair essentially argued that Biden beat Trump in 2020 because Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $400 million of their personal fortune to help localities run elections during the pandemic, and that money helped too many Democrats vote.
The complaint is not that votes were stolen or added illegally. It’s that there were too many legal votes cast in places that lean Democratic and that Zuckerberg and Chan’s money was in fact funneled to places where it would turn out more Democratic voters and help Biden.
Zuckerberg and Chan, who donated much of the money to a group called the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), deny the allegation. Ben Labolt, a spokesman for the couple, told Yahoo News that “nearly 2,500 election jurisdictions from 49 states applied for and received funds, including urban, suburban, rural, and exurban counties … and more Republican than Democratic jurisdictions applied for and received the funds.”
Unquestionably, examining the impact of so much money from a pair of individuals in any sphere related to the election is a legitimate endeavor. But so far, the conclusions about the impact of the Zuckerberg and Chan money go far beyond what any evidence shows, and are being dropped into an information environment already deeply poisoned by Trump’s relentless campaign of lies and baseless claims.
Neither the Masters nor the Vance campaign responded to a request for comment.
The anti-Zuckerberg message has been building for months on the right. Last year, the Capitol Research Center (CRC), a conservative nonprofit, began publishing a series of articles claiming that the money from Zuckerberg and Chan helped Biden win the election.
CTCL is a Chicago-based nonprofit founded in 2012 to advocate for election reform. Complaints about the Zuckerberg-Chan donations stem in part from the fact that top leaders at CTCL have worked for Democratic candidates or causes in the past, and that they have posted comments on social media indicating a dislike of Trump.
CRC, the conservative group, wrote that the money from CTCL “did not apparently violate any election laws” but that “many of its grants targeted key Democratic-leaning counties and cities in battleground states.”
“While CTCL sent grants to many counties that Republican incumbent Donald Trump won in these states, the largest grants went to Biden counties such as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the greater Atlanta metropolitan area,” CRC wrote.
In other words, the donation spent more money on highly populated urban areas that are essential to Democratic fortunes in swing states, but that also require far greater sums of money to conduct elections.
However, if the argument is that Philadelphia helped Biden win Pennsylvania, a close look at vote totals doesn’t support that argument.
Trump did better in Philadelphia in 2020 than he did in 2016, winning 18 percent of the vote last year compared with just 15 percent in 2016. In a state decided by only 80,000 votes, the vote totals in Philadelphia made it closer for Trump, rather than for Biden.
Biden won the state primarily because of his ability to do better than Hillary Clinton had four years prior in the suburban counties around Philadelphia.
Nonetheless, by this past summer, roughly a dozen Republican state legislatures had introduced or passed laws banning or restricting the ability of private money to flow into election administration. But CTCL has said that in many states there is a “systemic underfunding of elections” — a notion supported by nonpartisan election experts.
Zuckerberg and Chan donated the money in September and October 2020 after election administrators from around the country and from both parties said the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic was going to require a special infusion of money to pay for everything that was needed.
The federal government allocated about $400 million through emergency funding in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a stimulus package signed into law by Trump in March 2020. But election administrators and outside experts said much more was needed.
Republicans in Congress blocked attempts to spend more money for election administration, and a few months later Zuckerberg and Chan donated their own personal funds. One investigation by American Public Media into the donations said the money was spent on “increased pay for poll workers, expanded early voting sites and extra equipment to more quickly process millions of mailed ballots.”
The Masters and Vance op-ed in the New York Post relies largely on accusations made by another researcher, a former economics professor at the University of Dallas named William Doyle. Doyle has alleged that Zuckerberg paid for a “takeover of government election operations” and that the tech CEO “bought” the 2020 election and “significantly increased Joe Biden’s vote margin in key swing states.”
Doyle is planning to publish more articles on the subject, and in late December or January he intends to issue his first actual report, J.P. Arlinghaus, a spokesman for Doyle, told Yahoo News. Arlinghaus and Doyle are part of the Caesar Rodney Institute for American Election Research, a nonprofit organization set up "specifically to study the 2020 election,” Arlinghaus said.
The one item Doyle has published so far claims that the 2020 election “wasn’t stolen — it was likely bought.” According to Arlinghaus, the semantic distinction distances his argument from those made by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, lawyer Sidney Powell or MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who have all made wild claims about supposed efforts to rig the vote total for Biden.
“Unlike some advocates whose claims seem made to attempt an overturning of the 2020 result but which have not yet had solidly sourced evidence, we are pursuing activities and spending that are publicly uncontested and known through public records,” Arlinghaus told Yahoo News.
Arlinghaus also said, “We aren’t making assertions we wish were true, but rather we are interested only in meticulous study of the evidence wherever it leads.”
Doyle’s op-ed complains that more of Zuckerberg and Chan’s money went to large cities than to rural areas, where Republicans tend to be much stronger.
But that’s not de facto evidence of partisan intent. Highly populated localities need more resources to run an election where there are far more voters.
A more substantive complaint is that in metro areas of swing states, more Democratic-leaning portions of those regions got Zuckerberg funding while more moderate metro areas, with higher numbers of Republican voters, did not. Doyle alleges this happened in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where of the four major counties, the two that Biden won — Dallas and Tarrant counties — got Zuckerberg grants through CTCL, and the two that Trump won — Denton and Collin counties — did not.
But CTCL has said it gave grants to any counties that requested them. And in addition, the two big Dallas-Fort Worth counties that Trump won — and that did not get Zuckerberg funding — nonetheless saw a bigger increase in voter turnout than the two counties that did get the money from Zuckerberg and Chan.
Trump carried the state of Texas with nearly 5.9 million votes, a substantial increase over the 4.7 million votes he won there in 2016.
The right-wing narrative is that without groups like CTCL, and others like the Center for Election Innovation and Research (CEIR), which awarded about $65 million in grants — most of that from Zuckerberg and Chan — Democrats would have had less of a turnout boost while Republicans voted in higher numbers without any help.
“It is part of the overall election denial and the attempts to weaken American democracy by making just completely false claims about the election,” David Becker, CEIR’s executive director, said.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, said that “even in the most challenging of environments, 2020 was Ohio’s most successful election ever” and that Zuckerberg and Chan’s money — allocated through CEIR grants — was “vital to achieving that mission.” Trump won Ohio by some 500,000 votes in 2020, an improvement on his 2016 showing.
Doyle also argued that the people at CTCL overseeing the disbursement of hundreds of millions of dollars to local election offices were “nominally non-partisan — but demonstrably ideological.” There is an entire page at the Caesar Rodney Institute website showcasing social media posts from three CTCL members that indicate their political views lean left.
Doyle’s website declares, “The 2020 General Election is not over and done with.”
The notion that Big Tech is in cahoots with the Democratic Party is widespread on the right. And it’s promoted by authors like the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, whose book “Rigged” provides much of the material for others in the right-wing media ecosphere.
In that book, Hemingway claims the Zuckerberg and Chan money had a partisan impact, but she also talks about mainstream media bias and decisions by social media companies like Facebook and Twitter to deplatform Trump and other Republicans. And she points to efforts to suppress the circulation of stories critical of Democrats, most notably the one involving Hunter Biden’s laptop.
But Hemingway, a former Trump critic turned stalwart defender, contends that what appeared to be nonpartisan efforts to help people vote during a pandemic were really a plot to defeat Trump.
The problem with this argument is that higher-turnout elections have not been shown to help either party, even as many partisans on both sides continue to insist that higher turnout helps Democrats.
In addition, apart from Trump, the GOP did exceptionally well in the 2020 election, which saw huge turnout among both Republicans and Democrats.
That dynamic continued in last month’s election in Virginia — where Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected governor with the most votes of any statewide official in the history of the commonwealth.