A right wing group funded by some of the wealthiest people in Minnesota — including an heir to railroad baron James J. Hill’s fortune — is waging an online disinformation campaign.
Right Now Minnesota is an independent expenditure committee whose stated goal is to elect “a governor in Minnesota who believes in smaller government, less taxes, and wants to see our wages and economy grow,” according to the “about” section of their Facebook page.
Since its 2017 founding, Right Now has existed primarily as two websites and two Facebook pages — one of each for Right Now Minnesota and its affiliated federal super PAC. The organization has a little more than 12,000 followers on Facebook, but its ads on the social media platform sometimes reach more than 60,000 screens, according to data in Facebook’s ad library.
The group’s posts and paid advertisements have repeatedly been flagged by Facebook for violating political advertising rules or for being misleading or false. The group also has been discovered targeting COVID-19 disinformation to an at risk population.
The group’s donors include Louis Hill, the great-grandson of railroad monopolist James J. Hill; Stanley Hubbard, billionaire founder of Hubbard Broadcasting; Tom Rosen, the patriarch of one of America’s wealthiest families whose wealth is built on a meat-packing company; and ex-Davisco Foods CEO Mark Davis, whose family appeared on the same Forbes list of wealthiest families as the Rosens. Hill donated in May 2020 while the other three gave in 2019, before the COVID-19 crisis, but after the organization had been called out for producing fake news.
A pattern of disinformation
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Right Now Minnesota’s content targeted familiar bogeymen of the Minnesota right. They have accused Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison of being controlled by both George Soros, who is Jewish, and Louis Farrakan, who is anti-Semitic.
The group once falsely claimed that Ellison and U.S. Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar had hosted a town hall event at a homeless encampment, presenting the claim alongside a photo taken without permission from MPR’s website and photoshopped to include the three politicians.
Since February, the pattern has continued, with a COVID twist.
One post claims that “forcing people to wear masks has nothing to do with safety. It’s an experiment to see who is a follower and who isn’t.” (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear masks to protect themselves and others.)
Another post asserts that stay-at-home orders were a conspiracy by Democrats to crash the Trump economy, though similar measures have been enacted by Republicans including Gov. Mike DeWine in Ohio.
This kind of disinformation can have significant public health impacts, according to Kasisomayajula Viswanath, a professor of health communication at Harvard and an alumnus of the University of Minnesota. It creates confusion, undermines the legitimacy of authorities fighting the pandemic and wastes public health resources. Pointing to President Donald Trump’s endorsement of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment (a claim Right Now has repeated,) Viswanath described another, unquantifiable danger: “It raises false hopes among people.” (The Food and Drug Administration, which had authorized emergency use of the drug for COVID-19, this week revoked that authorization after studies showed no benefit as a treatment or preventative.)
The Right Now pages occasionally post humorous content, but intermixed with these “funnies” are several posts that stop just shy of advocating violence.
One is a parody of a Farmers Insurance commercial. A woman asks a man why he doesn’t trust the government and he responds “Well, we know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” The punchline is a series of photographs of the aftermaths of armed conflicts between anti-government militants and federal authorities at Waco, Texas, Ruby Ridge, Idaho and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
In another — titled “Thursday night funny” — a teacher asks her class what they learned during quarantine. One child replies “We need to refresh the tree of liberty,” a reference to a frequently quoted Thomas Jefferson aphorism: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Shortly after bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Timothy McVeigh was arrested wearing a shirt emblazoned with the aphorism. He cited Waco and Ruby Ridge as motivations for the bombing, which he committed on the second anniversary of Waco.
Right Now has also targeted COVID-19 disinformation to an at-risk population. On April 19, it posted “If you are in your mid eighties, with pre-existing health conditions, you really need to be EXTRA CAREFUL! Beware and pay attention to what you can do to minimize your risk and your loved ones risk.” The post shared a link, exclaiming “GREAT INFORMATION!”
The link points to an interview with a scientist who makes a number of false claims while speaking outside his area of expertise. Among other assertions, he calls the coronavirus a flu. (It isn’t.) He says it is no worse than the average flu. (It is.) He says the stay home orders are making the virus stronger. (Not true.) And he says the disease would eradicate itself in four weeks if everyone continued their normal lives. (Right Now posted this six weeks after Sweden saw its first case of COVID-19. Now four months into the Swedish government’s decision to not lockdown, the country has the highest mortality rate in Europe and is months away from herd immunity, let alone “eradication.”)
Founder and chairman of Right Now Minnesota Elliot Olson said he wasn’t aware of the post, but shrugged it off, saying, “If it’s obviously wrong, it should be obviously wrong to most people reading it.”
Viswanath disagrees, “It doesn’t take all seven billion people to act on misinformation, right? It will take only seven people to act on it. You know what I’m saying?”
One conspiracy theory — cited by Viswanath as an example of the danger of disinformation — claims that 5G cell towers cause COVID-19. The theory is popular in Europe and has led to a wave of arson and vandalism of telecommunication towers. In one case, Dutch protesters damaged an emergency medical services telecom tower, mistaking it for the maligned technology.
“Sowing seeds of doubt, seeds of fear, seeds of paranoia — it doesn’t take a lot to create damage,” Viswanath said.
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In Minnesota, political committees like Right Now take donations to finance “independent expenditures,” which are political ads that support or oppose a candidate or ballot measure, made without coordinating with a candidate. The typical committee spends most of its budget on this kind of advertising and as little as possible on administrative overhead, said Jeff Sigurdson, the executive director of the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board.
But Right Now Minnesota is different: 85% of its budget is overhead. The bulk of that — about 80% of their total budget — is paid to a company called 1854 Inc. Presumably named for the year the GOP was founded, 1854 has no online presence, and its physical existence is limited to two post office boxes, in Wayzata and Golden Valley.
“I’m not commenting on our internal workings,” Olson said when asked about the outfit. He said 1854 does not maintain Right Now’s website or Facebook page. Both are maintained by “staff,” he said.
Right Now’s campaign finance disclosures seem to contradict this claim. It has reported neither in-kind donations nor expenses that could account for the staff time necessary to maintain the sites — except payments to 1854. According to campaign finance disclosures, the purpose of payments to 1854 include media placement, web hosting, design services and “custom profile technology.”
Sigurdson did not comment on Right Now, but said that, generally, it is fine for a committee to pay another group to maintain its online presence. “Now, they would need to identify the vendor that they’re paying,” he said. Naming a company that exists only on paper could be a violation.
Olson defended the opacity of his organization, calling its inner workings “proprietary.” He said the sites are “open-source,” allowing anyone to post to the Right Now Facebook or web page. “I made a platform for the little guy. If the little guy wants to remain anonymous, that’s his decision.” In fact, neither the Facebook page nor the website allow users to post more than comments.
Olson frequently uses populist rhetoric to describe his work. Right Now’s mission, he wrote in a fundraising letter shortly after the organization was founded, is to “solicit small donors who had given up on politics because nobody would listen to them.” But Right Now was launched with $120,000 in donations from Louis Hill. Hill made the payments through his company, Decision Tree Equities, and is named as the source of the funds on state campaign finance documents.
In the same fundraising letter, Olson described his suspicions that most political contributions come “from the 1% and for the benefit of the 1%. So rhetorically, the 99% is pretty much left out. We want to change that,” he added, “We want a PAC for Mr. and Mrs. Main Street.” Right Now has used public health concerns about meatpacking plants during the pandemic to attack several of Rosen’s competitors.
To date, nearly three-quarters of Right Now Minnesota’s income has come from Hill, while small-dollar donations have accounted for just over 1%. Through his assistant, Hill declined to comment.
Between 2018 and 2019, Hubbard donated $30,000 to Right Now Minnesota and its affiliated federal super PAC. His assistant said that Hubbard donated at the request of a friend, Mark Davis, and didn’t know anything about the group.
Emails and calls to businesses of Rosen and Davis were not returned.
Olson said he sees no conflict between his stated mission of soliciting small-dollar donations and getting most of his money from tycoons and their heirs. “Our mission has not changed. We are marching toward achieving success in that area,” said Olson. “I’m for the small guy.”
2016 all over again
Viswanath was not familiar with Right Now, but it fits into a pattern he and his colleagues have seen since the start of the pandemic: a convergence of interests between mainstream political operatives and conspiracy theory fringe groups.
“A number of these groups are exploiting this opportunity to undermine authority, to advance their own agenda,” Viswanath said, “So this is not simple misinformation anymore, it is the deliberate spread of disinformation that is aimed at not only questioning the evidence-based steps [to combat the pandemic,] but trying to undermine the political authority and seed discontent and doubt.”
Right Now’s content likely does not violate Minnesota’s campaign finance law, even in the face of a national conversation about disinformation following the Russian-influenced 2016 election. “We haven’t really seen an effort to regulate social media in a way that was different than what was set up initially for mailings and radio ads,” Sigurdson said. “It’s the same set of regulations.”
Sigurdson conceded that this could be problematic because of “the inability to track back things on social media in the way that you can with a mailing.”
But without new legislation, Sigurdson said, there is little that the campaign finance board can do to combat misinformation and disinformation. “If it’s not related to a particular candidate or official ballot question, it falls out of our realm of authority pretty quickly.”