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The latest series of revelations by investigative journalist Paul D. Thacker concerning the organization responsible for creating the list of the “Disinformation Dozen” confirm connections to more dark money sources and to key political and Hollywood figures.
In an article published Monday in Tablet Magazine and on his Substack, Thacker also revealed the organization — a nonprofit called Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) — received anonymous donations of upwards of $1 million and hired a lobbying firm.
Prior to coming up with its “Disinformation Dozen” list, Thacker said, CCDH was part of a campaign to silence independent media and prominent political opponents.
CCDH has since turned its attention to attacking X (formerly Twitter) and its owner, Elon Musk, and supporting the recent passage of a sweeping new censorship bill in the U.K.
According to Thacker, the influence of CCDH and its founder and CEO, Imran Ahmed, on the Biden administration, policymaking circles and mainstream and social media is disproportionately large for a small organization founded and managed by a non-American — raising questions about who, or which entities, are backing CCDH.
Those questions led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to subpoena CCDH in late August. Jordan gave CCDH until Sept. 29 “to produce its communications with the executive branch related to content moderation, the accuracy or truth of content, and the deletion or suppression of content.”
CCDH responded to the subpoena on Sept. 29, claiming it “produced all documents and communications” which were requested. Notably, the letter came on the letterhead of a law firm representing CCDH, instead of from the organization directly, while the publicly viewable online version of the letter does not include the accompanying documents.
‘Disinformation Dozen’ list led to censorship of Kennedy, others
In March 2021, CCDH drafted a report and accompanying list of the so-called “Disinformation Dozen,” which included Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chairman on leave of Children’s Health Defense (CHD), Dr. Joseph Mercola, and Ty and Charlene Bollinger, founders of The Truth About Vaccines and The Truth About Cancer websites.
The report claimed, “Just twelve anti-vaxxers are responsible for almost two-thirds of anti-vaccine content circulating on social media platforms,” and concluded social media “platforms must act” against these individuals.
In one example, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki cited the CCDH report during a July 2021 press briefing to pressure Facebook into censoring the accounts in question. “There’s about 12 people who are producing 65% of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms,” Psaki claimed.
Thacker, writing for Tablet, said Twitter specifically took action against Kennedy after it received the “Disinformation Dozen” list — and was subjected to White House pressure:
‘“COVID-19 misinfo enforcement team is planning on taking action on a handful of accounts surfaced by the CCDH report,’ a Twitter official wrote on March 31. One account they eventually took action against belonged to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is now running against Joe Biden for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.”
CCDH provides White House with ‘powerful weapon to use against critics’
“What, then, do we know about the CCDH?” Thacker wrote Monday in Tablet. “In effect, it seems, the organization provides the White House with a powerful weapon to use against critics including RFK Jr. and Musk, while also pressuring platforms like Facebook and Twitter to enforce the administration’s policies.”
“While few journalists have bothered to investigate the opaque group, the available evidence paints a picture that is likely different from what many in the public would expect of a ‘public interest’ nonprofit,” Thacker added.
As part of his July investigation leading to the release of the CCDH-related “Twitter Files,” Thacker was unable to discover who funds and supports the organization. He told The Defender in July that he believed CCDH was a “dark money” group.
Kennedy, testifying at a July 20 hearing organized by the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, also called CCDH a “dark money” group.
A subsequent investigation by GreenMedInfo’s Sayer Ji was able to trace some of the organizations that financially support CCDH, including several U.K.-based nonprofits affiliated with legacy media organizations, the U.K. government and major philanthropic organizations such as the Open Society Foundations and the Ford Foundation.
Yet, unanswered questions about CCDH and Ahmed remained for Thacker, who wrote on Substack:
“How did some guy from London with no D.C. political experience get noticed by the White House and attract so much media attention? Where does he come from? What’s his background? Where does he get his money? Who is behind this?”
As part of his latest investigation, Thacker wrote that he “lucked into finding a critical, anonymous donor who dropped $1.1 million into CCDH’s coffers.”
This represented “around 75% of all the funds they took in that year,” Thacker wrote on Substack.
Writing for Tablet, Thacker added, “According to tax records, Ahmed began to run CCDH from D.C. in 2021, and CCDH took in $1.47 million in their very first year operating in the United States.”
‘CCDH functions as an arm of the corporate wing of the Democratic Party’
This was not the only interesting insight into CCDH’s operations. Thacker also discovered CCDH’s chairman is Simon Clark, a former senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP).
According to Thacker, CAP is a “D.C. think tank aligned with the corporate arm of the Democratic Party.” It was founded by John Podesta, who chaired Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign against Donald Trump. And yes, CAP has close ties to the Biden administration,” Thacker wrote.
Clark was also a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab, Thacker wrote in Tablet. In a previous “Twitter Files” release, investigative journalist Matt Taibbi reported that the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab was funded by various U.S. government agencies and defense contractors and “remains a central piece in the ‘censorship-industrial complex.’”
Thacker quoted Mike Benz, a former U.S. State Department official who runs the Foundation for Freedom Online, a free-speech watchdog. Benz told Thacker the Atlantic Council is “one of the premier architects of online censorship” and has, in recent years, “had seven CIA directors on its board of directors or board of advisers.”
“One might conclude that CCDH functions as an arm of the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, to be deployed against the perceived enemies of corporate Democrats, whether they come from the left or the right,” he added.
CCDH spent $50,000 to lobby Congress on COVID ‘misinformation’
Thacker also uncovered ties between CCDH, Ahmed and Hollywood.
“Go a little deeper and you find the other members of the [CCDH] board,” Thacker wrote on Substack, adding, “The one who caught my attention is Aleen Keshishian.”
Keshishian, who is also an adjunct professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, lists clients including actor Mark Ruffalo, who according to Thacker, “tweets support” for CCDH.
Her other clients include Jennifer Aniston, Selena Gomez and Natalie Portman.
“Ahmed’s connections to Hollywood actors could account for some of the money he has raised from anonymous sources, as wealthy celebrities sometimes wish to keep their political donations hidden from fans,” Thacker wrote in Tablet.
Unusual for a nonprofit, CCDH also hired a PR and lobbying firm, Lot Sixteen, to work on its behalf.
“Very few activist groups have the financial means to hire private lobby shops — even those with an established presence on Capitol Hill — but during a few quarters of 2021 and 2022, CCDH paid Lot Sixteen $50,000 to lobby congressional offices on COVID-19 misinformation and ‘preventing the spread of misinformation and hate speech online in social and mainstream media,’” Thacker wrote.
Thacker told The Defender that even large and well-established nonprofit groups such as Greenpeace and Public Citizen have not hired PR firms to work on their behalf.
“None of those groups that I’m aware of, the longest-established groups in D.C., have ever had the money to hire a private lobby shop like CCDH did. It’s just bizarre,” he said, adding that this is because CCDH is “a political campaign designed to look like a grassroots public-interest organization.”
Thacker said he contacted Lot Sixteen and “asked them how they confirmed that Imran Ahmed was compliant with FARA [Foreign Agents Registration Act],” noting that “This guy’s a foreigner. No one knows where his money comes from. How do they know his money’s not coming from overseas and he’s not in violation of foreign lobbying laws?”
“They didn’t get back to me,” Thacker said. “My guess is they didn’t do due diligence.” He also told The Defender that while CCDH “lists only four or five employees” on its website, “if you go on LinkedIn, there’s about 20 other people working for him.
“What nonprofit does not list all their employees? It’s just bizarre,” Thacker said.
CCDH ‘rarely disclose funders’
According to Thacker, CCDH and associated groups have operated in secrecy and under multiple identities for several years.
“Ahmed’s history is hard to track,” he wrote for Tablet. “The two groups he has run — Stop Funding Fake News [SFFN] and CCDH — seem to pop up out of nowhere, switch addresses, rarely disclose funders, omit naming all employees, and feature websites that change names or disappear from the internet.
“While Ahmed eventually acknowledged in 2020 that he helped launch both [groups] … his involvement remained hidden for some years. Stop Funding Fake News started in February 2019 claiming to be a ‘social movement’ too frightened to name its own grassroots activists,” Thacker added.
Thacker said that by searching archived versions of CCDH’s website on the Internet Wayback Machine, he was able to find out more information about the organization.
“One of the first things I ran across was reports about CCDH incorporating in the U.K. back in 2018,” said Thacker who looked up their filings in England to find their address and who was on their board. “One of CCDH’s first directors is a guy named James Morgan McSweeney,” he wrote on Substack.
According to Thacker, McSweeney “is a power broker in UK politics, and a top staffer to Keir Starmer, who is now the head of the British Labour Party. So CCDH is not really some disinterested, public nonprofit, it’s a political campaign by British Labour.”
Writing for Tablet, Thacker said that CCDH “registered in late 2018 in London, first as Brixton Endeavours Limited” and when it incorporated, its “only director was a staffer for Keir Starmer.” The group also “shared an address with an organization that supported Starmer,” while Damian Collins, a member of the Tory Party, later joined as an officer.”
Thacker wrote on Substack that CCDH, SFFN and Ahmed have often operated as “political operative[s] for conservative members of the British Labour party,” including on behalf of Starmer, to help “destroy the Left in the United Kingdom.”
Starting in 2019, SFFN “claimed some very sizable left-wing scalps in London, mostly by lobbing vague accusations of fake news at political enemies. The group helped to run Jeremy Corbyn out of Labour Party leadership while tanking the lefty news site Canary, after starting a boycott of their advertisers,” Thacker wrote in Tablet.
In one instance, SFFN claimed that they convinced 40 major brands, including Adobe, Chelsea FC, eBay and Manchester United, to stop placing their advertisements on the websites of such news outlets, a tactic SFFN called “demonetizing.” They also claimed that they were “educating” advertising agencies.
“Essentially, SFFN and [CCDH] were front groups created by conservatives in Labour for an internecine battle against leftists in their own party. The Canary reported that CCDH’s address linked the group back to Keir Starmer’s people,” Thacker wrote on Substack. SFFN reports were also cited in the British Parliament.
Having accomplished this, SFFN “became moribund, rarely tweeting from their social media account,” Thacker wrote in Tablet, noting that this did not matter as Ahmed “pivoted his focus” to the U.S., where his list of “‘disinformation’ targets just happened to be critics of the Democratic Party establishment” — including Kennedy.
“Just as he had done for the Labour Party, Ahmed used the CCDH to attack as ‘conspiracy theorists’ and ‘anti-vaxxers’ various critics of the Biden arm of the Democratic Party,” Thacker wrote.
Association with Democrat-affiliated groups helped CCDH’s ‘unusual’ ascent
According to Thacker, CCDH now primarily operates in the U.S., based out of a virtual office that hundreds of D.C. nonprofits list as their residence. This is despite the fact that CCDH is still based in the U.K.
The site lists CCHD as a broad nonprofit devoted to “Civil Rights, Social Action, Advocacy / Research Institutes and/or Public Policy Analysis (NTEE).” It lists Ahmed as CEO with a 2021 base salary of $126,333 and Simon Clark from the Center of American Progress, the think tank of the corporate Democrats, as chair of the board.
According to Thacker, the prominent ascent of CCDH and Ahmed in U.S. policy and media circles is unusual.
“I want to point out how odd it is that a British political operative is now running a partisan campaign in the United States. This rarely happens,” Thacker wrote on Substack. “For a variety of complex reasons, British political operatives don’t come to the United States, Americans go to England [and other countries].”
“It doesn’t happen,” Thacker told The Defender. “That was my question from the beginning. This guy is quoted from the White House podium, has all these Congressmen sending letters on his behalf, who has appeared in front of Congressional hearings run by Democrats when they had the House of Representatives.”
“Probably what it is, is Simon Clark from the Center for American Progress,” Thacker said. “That’s the think tank for the corporate Democrats. That’s probably his entryway.”
Writing for Tablet, Thacker said, “One rumor that came up often in the dozen or so conversations” he had “with people who have observed Ahmed for years, is that he works for British intelligence,” although this has not yet been confirmed.
Thacker told The Defender that Ahmed and CCDH have played “the same game” in the U.S. and U.K., except that “instead of it being directly ‘Republicans are bad, these people are good,’ they find some way that they can say, ‘aha, hate!’ So, it’s taking this idea and rebranding it for political purposes.”
Writing in Tablet, Thacker said that “Ahmed’s story is critical to understanding the new push for censorship under the guise of combating hate.”
‘Obsession’ with Kennedy, Musk, vaccines
Having become fully embroiled in U.S. politics, Thacker said that Ahmed and CCDH have developed an “obsession” with figures such as Kennedy and with issues such as COVID-19 vaccines — receiving broad media coverage in the process.
Writing for Tablet, Thacker said, “After Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced he was running against Biden for the Democratic nomination and appeared on Joe Rogan, Ahmed told the BBC, “He’s working really hard to keep people from knowing he’s a hardcore anti-vaxxer.”
Thacker told The Defender that “every one of these ‘disinformation experts’ out there — I don’t care if they’re a fact-checker, a think tank, a journalist, an academic, they’ve all done work on elections and on vaccines. So, they’re all election ‘experts’ and vaccine ‘experts.’ How you become an expert in both, I don’t know, but that’s what they are.”
“It’s a complete and total obsession,” Thacker added. “There’s not a single ‘disinformation’ expert out there who I’ve not seen do something on vaccines. They’re obsessed … why, out of all the things that you can target, why do you target vaccines? I can only think that there’s some kind of funding behind it, where that funding comes from, what it’s about. That’s the only reason that makes sense to me.”
Thacker also said “it’s just bizarre” that someone like Ahmed can come in and be obsessed about vaccines and not have a single tweet criticizing Pfizer or Moderna. “He’s not found any problems with the Biden administration’s vaccine policies. Not one … Ahmed appears where the corporate Democrats need expertise.”
Musk recently became a new target for CCDH and Ahmed. Writing in Tablet, Thacker said, “Ahmed is now trying to drive away Elon Musk’s advertisers on X, this time based on dubious claims that the … site is a playground for racists,” including claims made in interviews with The New York Times, the Financial Times and The Guardian.
“Once again, these efforts have been uncritically amplified in the press and in a letter to Musk from House Democrats that reiterates Ahmed’s claims, and cites him and CCDH,” Thacker wrote in Tablet.
These attacks led Musk and X to sue CCDH and Ahmed in July, accusing them of making false and misleading claims about hate speech on the platform, and illegally accessing the computers of Brandwatch, a company that works with Twitter — a potential violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
In response, MSNBC published an Aug. 1 op-ed by Ahmed, claiming CCDH “has been at the forefront of cataloging and reporting on the hate proliferating on the platform owned by Elon Musk.”
“All of his targets just happen to be the people who the corporate Democrats don’t get along with, so that’s Elon Musk right now,” Thacker told The Defender, noting that Ahmed and CCDH have not targeted other social media platforms to the same extent.
Yet, Ahmed continues to enjoy a platform in the establishment media. Thacker told The Defender this is “because none of those reporters have bothered to look into his background in the U.K. or to look at where his money’s coming from, or to look at what’s inside the [Musk/X] lawsuit against him. It plays into their weird obsession with Musk.”
In parallel, CCDH board member Damian Collins “led a series of inquiries” in the British parliament “into ‘disinformation’ and ‘fake news’ on social media,” helping promote the “Online Safety Bill,” intended to purge online “disinformation,” Thacker wrote in Tablet.
“When Collins held hearings on the bill — which was passed into law just weeks ago — the first person to give testimony in support of online bans was Imran Ahmed,” Thacker added.
On Substack, Thacker previewed more reports about CCDH and Ahmed he will soon release, including regarding ties “to Peter Hotez, an American physician, an ardent proponent of Anthony Fauci and cheerleader in the national media for vaccines and Biden administration pandemic policies.”
“I hope this helps people understand how to do their own digging into dark money groups,” Thacker wrote on Substack.
In Tablet, he wrote that Ahmed has “been a servant to the power of political parties who deployed him and the CCDH to weaponize the charge of hate speech and misinformation against their enemies.”
The Defender on occasion posts content related to Children’s Health Defense’s nonprofit mission that features Mr. Kennedy’s views on the issues CHD and The Defender regularly cover. In keeping with Federal Election Commission rules, this content does not represent an endorsement of Mr. Kennedy who is on leave from CHD and is seeking the Democratic nomination for president of the U.S.