Officials at the Center for American Progress, the Democratic Party’s top think tank, indicated that they have no plans to stop taking money from Facebook even after an official at the think tank accused the social media giant of effectively doing the bidding of President Donald Trump.
The claim about the company’s political allegiances came on Friday from Jesse Lee, a former Obama White House official who now oversees communications for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the group’s advocacy arm.
“Facebook has been acting as an arm of the Trump campaign, spiking legitimate content that is critical of Trump, while letting content that helps Trump while promoting coronavirus misinformation sail through,” Lee wrote.
Lee was reacting to criticism of new Facebook content moderation policies by prominent Republican officials, including Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who hosted a video forum on Friday calling on Facebook to include “real conservative thought leaders” in a newly created body tasked with overseeing content moderation policies and decisions.
Conservatives have long lobbed the same allegation at Facebook that Lee did on Friday—that it is effectively a tool of their political opposition. Indeed, a day after Lee accused Facebook of being in Trump’s pocket, the president himself chimed in to claim the precise opposite.
“The Radical Left is in total command & control of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google,” Trump tweeted on Saturday morning. “The Administration is working to remedy this illegal situation. Stay tuned, and send names & events.”
But what stood out about Lee’s criticism of the company is that for an arm of a group that has taken substantial sums from the social media giant.
Facebook donated between $100,000 and $500,000 to CAP last year, according to a list of donors on CAP’s website (the group only discloses the general ranges of contributions). That was a large increase over its past donations; Facebook donated just $5,000 to $50,000 in each of the four years prior. The company regularly donates to a host of politically active nonprofit groups on both sides of the ideological spectrum.
Asked about its contributions to CAP in particular, a spokesperson for the group said those donations—and Lee’s comments—demonstrated CAP’s independence from its financial backers.
“CAP’s policy work has always been, and will always be, independent and driven by solutions that we believe will create a more equitable and just country,” the spokesperson said. “In all cases, CAP retains complete control over the direction of its work. It’s a sign of CAP’s independence that our scholars and spokespeople are free to take positions that do not always align with our supporters.”
An official for Facebook declined to comment.
Facebook is not the only tech giant to step up its financial support for CAP in recent years. The group had never reported receiving funds from Amazon until last year, when the company donated between $100,000 and $500,000. Search engine leader Google donated $100,000 to $500,000 in 2014, then reduced its annual giving to between $50,000 and $100,000 from 2015 through 2018. Last year, it shot back up to between $100,000 and $500,000. Ridesharing company Uber donated $50,000 to $100,000 in 2015, but its giving dropped off completely until last year, when it chipped in between $5,000 and $50,000.
Unlike those companies, though, Facebook occupies a unique position in the American political consciousness due to its size and ubiquity, and the role it played in disinformation campaigns aimed at sowing political division during the 2016 presidential campaign and in the years since. As a result, both sides of the political divide are highly attuned to any sign that the social media giant is playing favorites. And while Lee may be accusing Facebook of being an arm of the Trump campaign, his boss at CAP hasn’t exactly held back her critiques either, going so far as to call the company “a scourge to democracy.”