Big Tech Companies Helped Fund Far-Right Groups Pushing for Texas Abortion Ban

·9 min read
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Corporate backlash to the Texas abortion ban has so far been narrow and targeted, but one notably quiet sector has plenty of room—and money—to work with: Big Tech.

A review of public disclosures from Facebook, Google, and Amazon shows the tech giants have for years funded some of the most influential conservative political organizations and dark money groups responsible for the war on abortion rights. Those groups include The Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Committee for Justice, and the Republican Attorneys General Association.

When The Daily Beast asked this week whether these donations would continue, the companies—all of which have a strong presence in Texas—all ignored our questions.

Dina Montemarano, research director at abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, called the relationships “twisted hypocrisy.”

“It’s rich that we see near-constant cries of ‘censorship’ from anti-choice extremists when tech companies remove their dangerous disinformation, all the while these groups receive funding from many of these exact companies,” Montemarano told The Daily Beast, referencing the recent anti-corporate push from the Republican base targeting social media companies. The strategy, she said, has “worked all too well for conservatives” to net them “preferential treatment from tech companies while ginning up faux outrage as another way of appealing to their fringe base.”

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“These companies are also playing this game, speaking out against injustice when it suits their bottom line while simultaneously funding the movements causing injustice,” Montemarano said. “It’s far past time we pulled the mask off this twisted hypocrisy.”

Chief among these groups is The Federalist Society, a hyper-conservative nonprofit bent on stacking the federal bench with anti-abortion judges. The group, whose leadership has over the years raised hundreds of millions of dollars for efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade, has received donations from Google and Facebook every year since 2015.

The architect of the Texas law, Jonathan F. Mitchell, was a member of The Federalist Society, according to a recent Texas Monthly profile. That article also reports Mitchell as a member at the Hoover Institution, another ultra-conservative anti-abortion group, which got funding from Facebook in 2019.

Yet in 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted his company had blocked ads from American pro-life groups trying to influence an Irish abortion referendum. That same year, Google changed its abortion ad policy, after The Guardian reported the company had run deceptive anti-abortion ads. And last year, to the consternation of conservatives, Amazon Prime removed a controversial anti-abortion documentary from its streaming lineup.

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While the three companies have donated heavily to liberal causes over the years, none of them has given to Planned Parenthood, EMILY’s List, or NARAL, according to a database of public corporate disclosures compiled by left-leaning watchdog Campaign for Accountability. All three are poised to expand an already heavy corporate presence in The Lone Star State, where they employ thousands of workers and boast multiple campuses, including in the capital, Austin—the birthplace of Amazon-owned Whole Foods.

But all three companies have, year after year, continued to throw money at right-wing groups that have consistently fought to repeal abortion rights.

Beyond The Federalist Society, Google and Facebook have both given financial support to the Heritage Foundation, another key player in the push to overturn the longstanding Roe precedent. Heritage recently posted an article casting the Texas law in a favorable light. Facebook supported the Heritage Foundation in 2019 and 2020, and Google donated to the group between 2019 and 2020. Heritage refunded the six-figure 2020 donations and pledged to reject Big Tech donations this year.

The Committee for Justice, another right-wing nonprofit that advocates heavily for anti-abortion judges, also got money from Google in 2020, and is listed by the company’s government relations arm among the groups which have received “the most substantial contributions.”

Other beneficiaries include The Cato Institute, the prolific libertarian-leaning think tank founded by conservative megadonor Charles Koch. Cato has also seen annual financial backing from Google and Facebook since 2015. The two companies have also shown largesse to the anti-abortion American Enterprise Institute, as has Amazon, which contributed $10,000 or more to that nonprofit in 2017, 2018, and 2020, according to the company’s political engagement disclosures. (Of the three companies, only Amazon discloses its donations in dollar amounts.)

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Those disclosures also reveal a total of $212,500 in contributions from Amazon to the Republican Attorneys General Association, including a $100,000 gift in 2020. Google and Facebook have also given generously to RAGA.

That group, which helped organize the rally to “stop the steal” in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, has targeted abortion rights in court this year.

A handful of tech companies have pushed back against the Texas ban, which is at steep odds with public opinion on abortion. Both Lyft and Uber released statements vowing to foot legal bills for any drivers sued for assisting in an abortion, and Lyft gave $1 million to Planned Parenthood in response to the law. Web hosting service GoDaddy took down one abortion “snitch site,” but the site soon found another home with a domain service which has been friendly to far-right extremist groups.

Experts say the donations suggest Google, Facebook, and Amazon perceive a business advantage that outweighs the social justice imperatives they may espouse publicly.

Phil Hackney, an expert in nonprofit law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, told The Daily Beast that corporate support for these controversial organizations serves as a sort of barometer of power.

“​​Business groups generally want to make sure they cover all their bases, so any kind of big industry will give to groups that could potentially generate power,” Hackney said. “The Federalist Society is an interesting choice because if you look at virtually any law school, the group is a big deal. One way to look at this is the donations are pointing to where the power is—where there’s power to be found, money is going to be given. It’s a barometer, a sign of the times.”

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Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and an expert on nonprofit law, told The Daily Beast that the donations—many of which go to pro-business, libertarian-leaning organizations—highlight a political tension between social and regulatory issues.

“There’s concern in the tech world about antitrust lawsuits, including a bipartisan breakup bill proposed in Congress a while back,” Vandewalker said. “Tech groups are worried about that movement, because in general corporate America tends to be anti-regulation and there’s a thought that that fits into conservative politics.”

He continued that free market ideologies are helpful to corporate bottom lines. “And they want that voice to be there, but that comes into conflict with social issues and the public face of these companies,” Vandewalker said.

But in a recent twist, right-wing groups have begun to target these companies for expressing opposition to oppressive laws, supporting social justice movements, and in particular banning extremist and anti-democratic content on their platforms.

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For example, conservative advocacy organization the American Principles Project this year compiled a database which it claims highlights hypocrisy on the part of right-wing groups who take cash from tech companies but now speak out against them.

The American Enterprise Institute ran an article in January criticizing Big Tech’s response to the events surrounding the attack on the U.S. Capitol, warning that it’s “unlikely their traditional business models will continue.” And in May, the president of the Heritage Foundation—which last year turned down six-figure donations from Google and Facebook—signed a pledge rejecting all Big Tech donations, citing perceived “censorship” of conservative voices.

Asked about the pushback, Hackney pointed out that the nonprofits must also consider where their money is coming from.

“To me [the rejections are] fascinating, particularly with a group like Heritage which has historically aspired to be seen as nonpartisan. The fact that they’re rejecting Facebook and Google, which normally would seem like pretty plain vanilla money, suggests Heritage is drifting with the current political winds, from a very far-right Republican standpoint,” Hackney said. “So it’s an odd choice unless there’s something going on in the background.”

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The Texas law, which broadly opens anyone who “aids and abets” an abortion after six weeks to a lawsuit, may prove particularly problematic for social media companies. Above The Law pointed out last week that the new law appears in conflict with an anti-censorship bill the state enacted earlier this year—suggesting Facebook now faces possible liability in Texas for both blocking and permitting content about how to access abortion resources.

Vandewalker, of the Brennan Center, said that, despite pushback from both sides, the companies appear to be “betting they can play it both ways” by “working the refs in the media spin wars.”

“And if a million people see their touchy-feely ad,” he added, “maybe one percent of those people will hear about their donation to The Federalist Society.”

When The Daily Beast first inquired about the donations in August, prior to Texas passing the anti-abortion law, only Google and Facebook replied.

A Google spokesperson said the company has “always been transparent” about its contributions “across the political spectrum” to groups that “advocate for policies that help consumers.”

“We’ve been extremely clear that Google’s sponsorship doesn’t mean that we endorse that organization’s entire agenda—we may disagree strongly on some issues,” the spokesperson said.

A Facebook spokesperson would not provide comment, but pointed to the company’s political engagement report. The page says that Facebook belongs to groups “representing diverse views and communities,” and that “we chose these organizations because they are engaged in meaningful dialogue about either the internet or the local communities in which we operate.” The report adds that the company “[does] not always agree” with these groups, and says its support “should not be viewed as an endorsement of any particular organization or policy.”

Asked Tuesday whether the companies planned to continue giving to these groups in the wake of the anti-abortion law, Facebook referred The Daily Beast back to the report. Google and Amazon did not reply.

Updated at 10:11 am, 9/9/2021 to reflect that Google and Facebook did not donate to the Heritage Foundation this year, after the organization pledged to reject money from tech companies

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