2022 Annual Report: Holding Media and Tech Accountable
A MESSAGE FROM OUR CO-CEOs
In 2022, Free Press stood up to the bullies who seek to exploit our media system and confronted the corporate greed that allows this to happen year after year.
You — our donors and activists — make all of Free Press’ success and future plans possible. We couldn’t be more grateful. Your generous support keeps us independent from the government, political parties and the industries we track — and allows us to work solely on behalf of the public interest. Read on to learn what you’ve helped us accomplish in 2022.
Craig Aaron and Jessica J. González
COMBATING HATE AND DISINFORMATION
Since Elon Musk took over Twitter, Free Press has helped lead a major civil-society effort to hold the billionaire accountable and protect the site’s users. Co-CEO Jessica J. González and a small group of civil-rights leaders met with Musk in November during the first week after he took over the company to push him to retain content-moderation rules. “I shared my concerns that hate, harassment and conspiracy theories proliferate on the platform and underscored the disproportionate harm that unmoderated social-media spaces inflict on women and people of color,” said González. “I asked him to retain and fully enforce election-integrity measures.”
During the conversation, Musk made some concessions to our demands. He pledged to keep the election-integrity provisions in place until after the midterm elections, and to temporarily hold off on reinstating banned accounts that had violated Twitter rules. But as Musk fired thousands of people, dismantled entire teams, gutted content-moderation rules and suspended journalists who had criticized him, Free Press teamed up with Accountable Tech and Media Matters for America to organize a mammoth advertising boycott.
The #StopToxicTwitter coalition, which grew to include more than 60 civil-rights and civil-society groups, quickly succeeded in pushing half of the company’s top-100 advertisers to stop their global ad spending on the platform. Monthly revenue from Twitter’s top 1,000 advertisers plummeted by more than 60 percent from October through late January. The success of this campaign got to Musk, who claimed that “activists” were to blame for the company’s financial woes.
Free Press also substantively shaped media narratives around Twitter disinformation and democracy concerns, with 2,400 press hits within a two-week period from outlets including CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
The longer-term impacts of the #StopToxicTwitter campaign are still being felt at the company: By February, 625 of the site’s top 1,000 advertisers had paused their spending on the platform.
Our coalition’s success built on important work Free Press did throughout the year. In April — together with 60-plus allies in the Change the Terms coalition — we launched the Fix the Feed campaign. We called on tech companies to immediately institute election-integrity measures; enforce their rules equally regardless of a speaker’s social or political status; enforce rules equally across all languages; and be far more transparent about their content-moderation policies.
Over the summer, we met with Meta, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube. TikTok subsequently committed to allowing researchers to delve into its data, evaluate its content and test its moderation system. And YouTube invited researchers to apply for access to its global data.
For years, Free Press and our allies have pushed social-media platforms to invest significant resources in combating online hate and disinformation in languages other than English. After refusing to take the crisis seriously, Meta finally responded to our advocacy, issuing a series of public statements about fighting misinformation across all languages. We’re pushing the company to back up its words with action to protect non-English users.
As November’s midterm elections approached, it became clear that — despite this progress — tech platforms were failing to take the big steps needed to protect our democracy. In October, we released Empty Promises: Inside Big Tech’s Weak Efforts to Fight Hate and Lies in 2022, a major report revealing the ongoing failures of Meta, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube to curb the spread of election disinformation and extremism across their networks. Our report, which The Washington Post covered in an exclusive, exposes how these companies have failed to safeguard elections. In the report, we warned that disinformation about election results can lead to real-world violence.
Senior Director of Digital Justice and Civil Rights Nora Benavidez — who wrote Empty Promises — participated in a congressional roundtable on the impact of mis- and disinformation on U.S. elections. “We must rein in abusive practices by social-media companies,” she said. “Their business models threaten to destabilize our democracy by amplifying lies and calls for violence, reaching audiences with a speed, precision and scale once unimaginable.”
More lawmakers are recognizing the need to address the growing disinformation crisis — but not every legislator has the right solutions. Back in 2021, Free Press Action raised alarms about provisions in a House antitrust bill that would undermine the fight against online hate and disinformation. We continued to speak out when a Senate companion bill was introduced in 2022, noting how it would make it hard for platforms to remove from their sites any business that traffics in hateful, racist, violent or otherwise harmful content. Our advocacy spurred a group of leading Democratic senators to call for the bill’s sponsors to remove this provision. When the sponsors refused to do so, the bill failed to advance.
On the flip side, a bill we supported did pass: the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act. This law will increase filing fees for the largest mergers and enable Congress to use the resulting money to fund antitrust enforcement.
In December, Free Press Action filed an amicus brief at the Supreme Court in Gonzalez v. Google, a case that could fundamentally change how the internet works by invalidating Section 230, a law that broadly shields platforms from liability for content their users create and post. Our lawyers argued that Section 230 is a foundational and necessary law that lowers barriers to people sharing their own content online and advocated for careful interpretations that clarify platforms’ liability for their own knowingly harmful actions.
“Section 230 encourages the open exchange of ideas and takedowns of hateful and harmful material,” said Vice President of Policy and General Counsel Matt Wood. “Losing the core of Section 230 could risk chilling online expression, which would disproportionately harm Black and Brown communities, LGBTQIA+ people, immigrants, religious minorities, dissidents, and all people and ideas targeted for suppression or harassment by powerful forces.”
FIGHTING FOR YOUR PRIVACY AND CIVIL RIGHTS
In the wake of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, efforts to protect everyone’s privacy online are even more urgent. Tech companies collect entirely too much information about the details of our private lives. Location data and search and browser histories are already being weaponized by law enforcement, government officials and vigilantes to investigate and harass people seeking abortions and other pregnancy-related medical procedures.
In June, news broke that Facebook gave Nebraska law enforcement access to a 17-year-old’s private Facebook messages — and now she’s being prosecuted for having an abortion. We responded to this alarming news by mounting a rapid-response campaign calling on the company to protect its users and encrypt all private messages shared on the platform.
It’s crucial that all tech companies protect your data. This is one of the many reasons Free Press Action launched the Hands Off My Data campaign, which focuses on the government and tech companies that access, track and sell your data without your permission. In response to advocacy from our group and allies, Google announced that it will delete the location histories for users visiting abortion clinics and other sensitive health locations.
In May, the Senate confirmed law professor Alvaro Bedoya — a former Free Press board member — to serve as the Federal Trade Commission’s fifth commissioner. Free Press Action helped build support for Bedoya, and his appointment gave the FTC’s Democratic majority the tie-breaking vote it needed to start a proceeding on civil rights and privacy.
In August, the agency opened a rulemaking on measures to stop corporations and other commercial actors from abusing people’s personal data. The FTC’s announcement cites requests made by Free Press and our allies from the Disinfo Defense League that petitioned the agency to address these abuses. We’re leading a process with our partners to make sure the agency listens to people of color, women and other disproportionately impacted communities.
In June, we welcomed the introduction of the American Data Privacy and Protection Act, which would ban online platforms and other entities from collecting, processing and sharing people’s data in ways that discriminate “on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, or disability.” The bill builds on core civil-rights principles in model legislation that Free Press Action and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law released in 2019. We worked with our Disinfo Defense League partners to move this bipartisan legislation forward. In a promising milestone, the bill passed out of a House committee in late July in a landslide bipartisan vote of 53–2. While the bill was not enacted in 2022, this nearly unanimous bipartisan vote sets the stage for advocacy and passage in the new Congress.
CLOSING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
Free Press Action’s advocacy paved the way for historic broadband provisions in the infrastructure package that President Biden signed into law in late 2021. This investment in closing the digital divide included nearly $65 billion for broadband.
A remarkable $14.2 billion of that total was dedicated to the creation of the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program. The program, which launched in 2022, provides households living near the poverty line or enrolled in other federal-aid programs with up to $30 per month for the internet package of their choosing from participating providers — and $75 per month for people living on Tribal lands. As of January 2023, about 16 million households had already signed up to take part in this program.
Free Press helped shape this program while working closely with the FCC — and the final order reflects many of our recommendations (no small feat given the agency’s even split between Democratic and Republican commissioners). These include rules protecting against the predatory practice of “upselling” and using unfair credit-checking practices to deny service.
Meanwhile, an investigation by Free Press’ S. Derek Turner exposed billions of dollars of waste in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund under the Trump FCC. This money, which is supposed to subsidize broadband for people living in rural communities, instead went to densely populated urban areas and to places that don’t need broadband, like storage tanks and traffic medians. In August, the Biden FCC took action, stripping nearly $2.5 billion in contracts from Elon Musk’s satellite-broadband provider and other companies.
In September, Reps. Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman and Rashida Tlaib introduced the Utility Justice Human Rights Resolution, which declares that access to broadband, water, power, heating and cooling are human rights. The resolution is the product of work with the broader Utility Justice Coalition — which includes nearly 1,000 organizations — and our congressional champions. Internet Campaign Director Heather Franklin serves on the coalition’s steering committee.
In response to advocacy from Free Press and other groups, in November the FCC released an order mandating the creation of a broadband-nutrition label to inform people about the cost and basic terms of their internet-service plans. “Consumers are all too familiar with broadband bills that bury junk fees and service terms in the fine print,” said Policy Director Joshua Stager. “People deserve to know what they’re paying for, and this label will help.”
Free Press led a 31-member coalition that urged the agency to make the label clear and visible to customers on their monthly bills. Due to the deadlock at the FCC, the Commission isn’t currently requiring providers to display the label on customers’ statements. Free Press will continue to push for improved transparency.
LONG-AWAITED VICTORY CURBS PRISON-PHONE RATES
Marking a huge milestone, in December Congress passed the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, legislation Free Press Action and our allies have long supported. The bill is named in honor of Martha Wright-Reed, who fought for affordable prison-phone rates for more than 20 years. Wright-Reed was blind and could not travel long distances, and phone calls were the only way she could stay in touch with her grandson while he was incarcerated.
The legislation, which President Biden signed into law in January, will restore the FCC’s authority to regulate all prison and jail calls and stop prison-telecom corporations from charging incarcerated people and their loved ones predatory rates.
Prison-phone rates have long been astronomical, with the price of a local 15-minute phone call costing up to $25 in some states. “Incarcerated people and their loved ones have paid the price, literally, for the predatory behavior by the correctional telecom industry for far too long,” said Free Press’ Heather Franklin. “The ability for incarcerated people to maintain regular communication with their loved ones, counsel and clergy is a human rights issue. We look forward to working with the FCC to ensure that the costs of all calls are just and reasonable.”
SEATING A PROGRESSIVE LEADER AT THE FCC
Since 2021, we’ve been working hard to get the Senate to confirm Gigi Sohn to the FCC. Free Press Action helped mobilize more than 400 organizations from across the political spectrum to urge the Senate to confirm Sohn. Our activists have also signed petitions, called their senators and visited key lawmakers’ district offices to urge them to support President Biden’s nominee.
But an orchestrated corporate and right-wing smear campaign designed to weaken the FCC has obstructed progress on Sohn’s nomination at every turn. Unfortunately, the White House and Democratic leadership have done little to defend Sohn from these attacks — which have become increasingly hateful and malicious. No FCC nominee has ever had to wait this long for a confirmation vote — and as a result, the agency has been deadlocked for more than two years.
The delay in confirming Sohn has had severe consequences, especially for communities of color, low-income people and rural residents. Without her vote at the agency, the FCC has been unable to restore Net Neutrality, combat media consolidation, reckon with its history on race, protect people from ISPs’ abuses or ensure that our communications networks are resilient enough to withstand the climate crisis. We’re working with our allies and legislative champions to push the Senate to confirm Sohn as soon as possible and finally get a fully functioning FCC in place.
“Sohn brings significant experience inside the FCC and has long been a clarion voice outside of the building for what needs to change,” said Free Press Action Co-CEO Craig Aaron. “Having worked alongside her on so many crucial issues, I know firsthand the passion and intelligence she will bring to this job. As commissioner, Sohn will fight on behalf of working families trying to pay their rising monthly bills, ensure that the benefits of broadband reach everyone, and curb the runaway media consolidation that has decimated local journalism and harmed Black and Brown communities.”
KEEPING UP THE FIGHT FOR NET NEUTRALITY
In July, Jessica J. González spoke alongside Sen. Ed Markey, Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Doris Matsui after the lawmakers introduced the Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act. This bill would have restored the FCC’s oversight of broadband providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon — empowering the agency to work toward its mandate of ensuring that affordable high-speed internet is available to all. The legislation would have also provided the foundation for reinstating the Obama-era Net Neutrality rules, which remain popular across the political spectrum. As of December, the bill had more than 70 co-sponsors.
Earlier in the year, a court rejected an industry attempt to stop California from enforcing its landmark Net Neutrality law, which the state put in place after the Trump FCC repealed the federal open-internet rules. Free Press Action had filed briefs at the district-court and appellate-court levels in defense of California’s legislation. These legal victories are important, but more action is needed to officially enshrine Net Neutrality as the law of the land. Once we have a fully functional FCC in place, we will push it to restore its Title II authority. This will enable the agency to reinstate the strongest possible federal Net Neutrality protections for the whole country, combat abuses from ISPs like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, and take other important actions.
In April, the United States joined dozens of other countries in signing the Declaration of the Future of the Internet, which promotes a shared vision of a more open, affordable, secure and democratic internet. Among the declaration’s principles are calls for Net Neutrality, affordable and inclusive internet access, and data-privacy protections. Jessica advised the White House on the Declaration.
ORGANIZING FOR MEDIA REPARATIONS
The visionary Media 2070 project fights for media reparations and also uplifts Black joy and resistance. Founded and led by Black staff at Free Press, Media 2070 has documented centuries of harm the U.S. media system has inflicted on the Black community.
In February, Media 2070, Georgetown Law and the University of Houston Law Center held a two-day conference on race, racism and the American media. The gathering explored historic and contemporary racial discrimination in all media, and examined how government policies have excluded Black people — and other communities of color — from controlling the nation’s communications infrastructure. Speakers included Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, UCLA Professor Safiya Noble, MediaJustice founder Malkia Devich-Cyril and the deans of both law schools. The event also featured a powerful presentation on the fight for media reparations from Free Press’ Joseph Torres.
Also in February, the team held its second annual Black Narrative Power Month, which emphasized mindfulness and collective wellness and provided resources for Black media-makers and other media-makers of color.
In April, Media 2070 debuted the powerful documentary Black in the Newsroom. The film, directed by Vice President of Cultural Strategy and Media 2070 Project Director Collette Watson, examines what happens when a talented journalist experiences systemic racism at The Arizona Republic and contends with pay so low she has to choose between buying groceries and paying rent. “As Elizabeth bravely shares her story in our film, we see that the conversation is bigger than issues around hiring and diversity,” said Watson. “Anti-Black racism has been extremely profitable for the U.S. media business since colonial times. And as long as it remains so, there will be generations of people harmed by this toxic system.”
The documentary — which can be viewed on the Black in the Newsroom website — won best documentary short at both the Detroit Black Film Festival and the Peachtree Village International Film Festival. The film — slated for numerous screenings in 2023 — has also screened at Arizona State University, the Chandler International Film Festival, the Denton Black Film Festival, Indie Film Fest, Montclair State University, the Phoenix Center for the Arts, San Diego State University and West Virginia University. In the video below, Watson discusses the documentary at Indie Film Fest.
Media 2070 is working with a growing consortium of media-makers, scholars and activists dedicated to building support for the fight for reparations. The team appeared at a number of prominent events in 2022, including the Allied Media Conference, where Reparative Journalism Program Manager Diamond Hardiman and Media 2070 Campaign Manager Venneikia Williams presented a session on “Black Future Newsstands.” They invited participants to imagine what kinds of news, information and storytelling might exist in the future if they centered the vastness of Black experience. Media 2070 will present a Black Future Newsstands art installation at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem this June.
TRANSFORMING LOCAL NEWS
The local-news crisis has left communities across the country with little to no reporting on local government, schools, public health and other crucial matters.
In New Jersey, where we began the News Voices project in 2015, we’re continuing to fill local gaps. In 2021, we co-founded the New Jersey Community Media Collective, a network of hyperlocal projects addressing the news-and-information needs of underserved communities. In 2022, the collective began a project about community health and access. Another group we co-founded in 2021 — the NJ Rebuild Media Now Coalition — is working to make the state’s news and information inclusive, equitable and sustainable for all communities.
In 2019, we created the Shift the Narrative Project in Philadelphia alongside the Media, Inequality and Change Center and Movement Alliance Project. This project aims to transform coverage of the criminal-legal system. We’re continuing to push The Philadelphia Inquirer to craft more equitable reporting on public safety, policing and trauma — and to better support its journalists of color. Thanks to our advocacy, the paper has taken some important first steps, such as creating a communities and engagement desk and launching a “More Perfect Union” project investigating its own racism.
But the paper, which until recently had no Black male reporters apart from its sports desk, has a long way to go. In 2022, we launched the Journalism Accountability Watchdog Network (J.A.W.N.), which holds local newsrooms accountable for harmful coverage and toxic newsroom practices. Members include the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and the Philly chapters of both the Asian American Journalists Association and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. In August, J.A.W.N. issued a letter to Inquirer leadership that condemned the paper for failing to support its journalists of color and serve BIPOC communities. Tauhid Chappell and Cassie Owens, both former Inquirer journalists, are leading our efforts in Philly, alongside News Voices Director Vanessa Maria Graber.
J.A.W.N. received the President’s Award from the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists in November for holding institutions like the Inquirer accountable. And in early 2023, the coalition also received the Pen and Pencil Club’s award for Collaborative Journalism Project of the Year.
Free Press released two powerful journalism guides in 2022. In July, our team and the American Journalism Project published Building Community Power: A Newsroom’s Guide to Equitable Engagement, which discusses grassroots organizing techniques that news outlets can use to forge genuine partnerships with their communities. The guide reflects our belief that newsrooms must especially invest in relationships with people of color, low-income people and other communities they have historically neglected.
In October, we released the restorative-justice guide The Moment Is Magic, which is designed to help reporters build healthier and less transactional relationships with the communities they cover. Journalist Allen Arthur, who uses restorative principles in his work, wrote the guide. To inform this resource and this emerging area of work, Reparative Journalism Program Manager Diamond Hardiman conducted a listening and research project on what it takes to build a culture of repair within newsrooms, what process is needed, and what we can learn from history and other movements to address harms the media have created.
CRAFTING JOURNALISM POLICY
In the midst of the local-news crisis, we’re working hard to rebuild local journalism and create new forms of public funding to sustain it.
The New Jersey Civic Info Consortium — the publicly funded nonprofit we dreamed up and helped create — is making a real difference. Since 2021, the consortium has invested $1.35 million in innovative news-and-information projects like Clinton Hill Community Action, which is training neighborhood residents to use storytelling as an advocacy strategy. New Jersey is investing $4 million in the consortium in 2023 — and this increased investment will help the organization better address the rise of news deserts and serve marginalized communities in the state. Free Press’ Mike Rispoli, who helped lead the campaign to create the consortium, serves on the grantmaker’s board.
In September, we released a case study on the historic campaign to pass the Civic Info Bill and create the consortium. The report, which Mike Rispoli and colleague Amy Kroin wrote, covers the multi-year campaign to address the decimation of local news in New Jersey, a crisis that has disproportionately harmed low-income communities, people of color, rural communities and immigrants. The report shows how engaging with a variety of stakeholders, holding public listening sessions and leading a grassroots campaign led to passage of one of the most significant pieces of media policy our country has seen in the past decade.
The consortium has already served as a model for other states. We’re playing a supporting or advisory role for people working to fund local news in Chicago, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York and Oregon. In 2022, California considered legislation to create a public fund to support both local and ethnic media. Free Press Action worked behind the scenes to help shape legislative language and ensure that the bill would benefit communities most. The state Senate approved the bill in May — but it failed to move forward in the Assembly after the lobby representing some of the state’s largest corporate media outlets mounted a dishonest campaign against it. However, in a big win, legislative champions secured $25 million to create a fellowship program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism to strengthen local reporting in underserved and underrepresented areas across California. Mike Rispoli is advising the university as it prepares to launch the new initiative.
Free Press also launched the Media Power Collaborative, which is bringing together media workers, movement organizers and researchers to develop and win transformative journalism policies. Phase one of the MPC’s work focused on political education: The group looked at historical media-reform movements — like Black-led activism against segregationist broadcasters — to inform its approach to today’s journalism crisis. Currently its 150 members include representatives from Chicago’s City Bureau, Detroit-based Outlier Media and The Texas Tribune.
On the federal level, Free Press Action advocacy helped block an attempt to attach a terrible bill — the misnamed Journalism Competition and Preservation Act — to a must-pass defense-spending bill in December. While proponents touted the JCPA as a way to help local journalism and stick it to Big Tech, the legislation was a massive giveaway to companies like Fox, Sinclair and the hedge-fund vultures at Alden Global Capital that have pumped out right-wing propaganda over the public airwaves and obliterated local newsrooms. In 2023, we’re ready to push back on any efforts to revive the JCPA — and will work to pass policies that actually benefit local newsrooms, communities of color and our democracy.
GETTING THE WORD OUT
2022 was one of our biggest press years ever: We had 3,500 press hits in outlets including ABC, the Associated Press, the BBC, CBS, CNN, The New York Times, NBC, On the Media, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and USA Today. Our Op-Eds appeared in places including The Boston Globe, CNN, The Columbia Journalism Review and USA Today.
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FUND THE FIGHT
Your generosity makes our work possible. Please give what you can today to make sure we have the resources we need to push for equitable media and tech policies that improve people’s lives. We’re actively fundraising to meet our budget goals for this year and to ensure we’re here to fight for your rights to connect and communicate in the future. You can give with confidence knowing that we don’t take money from business, government or political parties.
You can support us by making a one-time or monthly donation online or by mailing a check to P.O. Box 60238, Florence, MA 01062. You can also make a contribution through a donor-advised fund, a gift of stocks or securities, or a planned gift. For more information, please visit other ways to give or reach out to us.
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Please note: We will post financial information for 2022 when it becomes available in spring 2023.
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