More on ACRONYM, the group behind Shadow

The blowback against Shadow, creator of the app which made a mess of the Iowa caucus, and the umbrella company ACRONYM under which Shadow was launched continues today. Politico reports detractors are angry with ACRONYM CEO Tara McGowan but are also hesitant to speak to the media about it for fear of stoking further division within the party:

“People are really frustrated and skeptical about the structure that Tara has created,” said one Democratic operative, who did not want to be quoted for risk of alienation. “There’s a nonprofit and then there are for-profits below it, like a nesting doll. It’s moving money around in a way that’s unclear to people.”…

Critics of ACRONYM declined to speak on the record because they are concerned about maintaining party unity and retribution from the group’s donors. Allies declined to speak on the record to POLITICO, too, saying they didn’t want to become a part of the online firestorm surrounding Shadow. McGowan is a talented operative who has rapidly built a powerful organization and helped the party in 2018, they said…

Skeptics in the Democratic Party are unsure why Shadow or Courier Newsroom are being run as separate, for-profit companies, which shields them from even the minimal transparency that ACRONYM is subject to. When ACRONYM files mandatory tax disclosures, it must reveal top employees’ salaries and payments to its biggest consultants, and provide assurances that the ACRONYM empire’s different arms aren’t paying the same people multiple salaries — basic assurances to the nonprofit’s donors.

“Everything may be perfectly above board here. Then again, it may not be,” said nonprofit attorney Marcus Owens, a partner at Loeb & Loeb.

Courier Newsroom is another for profit company created by ACRONYM. McGowan’s plan is to create online news outlets in swing states which are there to pump out pro-Democratic content. However they do that without really revealing the goal is to help Dems win elections. The news sites created by Courier appear to be non-biased sources, at least to the casual observer. In essence, ACRONYM is creating fake newspapers. McGowan planned to spend $25 million on that effort.

As Ed pointed out yesterday, ACRONYM had clear connections to Shadow, but in the wake of the Iowa disaster ACRONYM is trying to obscure those connections. Here’s a statement ACRONYM’s CEO Tara McGowan released yesterday. It reads in part, “ACRONYM is a nonprofit organization and not a technology company. As such, we have not provided any technology to the Iowa Democratic Party…” The statement also describes ACRONYM as “an investor” in the company.

In reality, the two companies are tightly linked. Both ACRONYM and Shadow share office space. The Intercept reports internal documents also show a close connection:

An internal organizational chart shows digital strategy firm Lockwood Strategy, FWIW Media, and Shadow as part of a unified structure, with Acronym staff involved in the trio’s operations.

In an all-staff email sent last Friday, an official with Lockwood Strategy reminded team members about “COOL THINGS HAPPENING AROUND ACRONYM.” The list included bullets points such as, “The Iowa caucus is on Monday, and the Shadow team is hard at work,” and “Shadow is working on scaling up VAN integration with Shadow Messaging for some Iowa caucus clients.” (VAN refers to the widely used Democratic voter file technology firm.) Acronym staffers also attended the Shadow staff retreat.

As for the claim in the statement above that Shadow has other private investors, the Intercept reports that ACRONYM CEO Tara McGowan said on a podcast just last month that ACRONYM was “the sole investor” in the company.

Finally, last January ACRONYM announced it was launching Shadow as a new company “that will exist under the ACRONYM umbrella.” The announcement has since been removed from ACRONYM’s website but still exists on the Internet Archive:

ACRONYM is thrilled to announce the launch of Shadow, a new technology company that will exist under the ACRONYM umbrella and build accessible technological infrastructure and tools to enable campaigns to better harness, integrate and manage data across the platforms and technologies they all use. As part of the launch of Shadow, ACRONYM has acquired Groundbase, a peer-to-peer SMS and CRM tool that helped 75 progressive organizations and campaigns win elections during the 2018 cycle.

So the idea that ACRONYM is merely an investor in Shadow doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. An unnamed Democratic operative told Politico, “It’s the cover-up that f—ing kills you. The idea that [McGowan] was out there saying no one has any idea who was involved with this. You’re telling me she had no idea the firm she launched was being hired to run this project?”

With the failure in Iowa and Nevada Democratic Party announcing that it won’t be using Shadow’s app either, the company’s immediate future is looking dim. ACRONYM is obviously trying to get as far away from that failure as it can, but it really appears the blame should be spread around.