$280m ‘dark money’ spent by US Christian right groups globally

Country/area: United Kingdom

Organisation: openDemocracy

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 27 Oct 2020

Credit: Claire Provost, Nandini Archer, Inge Snip, Mark Brough, Lou Ferreira, Diana Cariboni, Isabella Cota, Tatev Hovhannisyan, Lydia Namubiru, Khatondi Soita, Teddy Wilson, Claudia Torrisi, Kerry Cullinan, Zarina Geloo, Tuyeimo Haidula, Adam Ramsay, Joni Hess

Project description:

This Dark Money project revealed how US-based Christian groups, many linked to then-president Trump, have spent $280 million globally since 2007 fuelling campaigns against the rights of women and LGBTIQ people across five continents. We exposed how these organisations spend millions to influence and interfere with laws, policies and public opinion against sexual and reproductive rights globally. We revealed that they funded anti-LGBT lawsuits, and campaigned for restrictions on LGBT rights, abortion, contraception and divorce. We showed how they worked with groups who have violent agendas against LGBT communities. We also built an interactive database and visualised financial data.

Impact reached:

Our major investigation consisting of global findings as well as many regional stories was picked up by more than 60 media outlets across the world, including The Guardian, Reuters, Mother Jones, and Time. Our stories were widely shared across social media and disseminated in a variety of national and local news platforms. Progressive Christian leaders across the United States openly condemned the actions of the groups we exposed. In Africa, the UN agency UNFPA has commissioned a rapid assessment of opposition to comprehensive sexuality education in eastern and southern Africa, partly in response to our investigation. Several civil society groups in Latin America have convened to prepare a roadmap for action based on the implications of our investigation. In South Africa, the department of education discussed how to address the attacks of the groups we revealed on sex education and our editor was invited to deliver expert opinion. Additionally, following publication, we have organised a webinar for reporters on how the media should cover far-right groups which was attended by many, including reporters from the Christian media.

Techniques/technologies used:

In order to establish how much these organisations spent and where, the reporters sifted through hundreds of “Form 990” submitted by the target organisations to the United States Internal Revenue Service. We collected annual Form 990s belonging to 28 organisations across a 13-year period consisting of thousands of pages, and painstakingly read them all line by line. The reporters double-checked each other’s data work on these financial forms. We identified money flows and recorded the amounts spent by the organisations on a variety of anti-women’s right and anti-LGBT projects across the world. We have built an extensive and intricate in-house database with the numbers and details we have found and shared with our local reporters. We constantly fact-checked our database. But ultimately, we wanted to go beyond a purely data-based investigation and really dig deep into the implications of these millions of dollars that appear drily on governmental records and our spreadsheets. To achieve this, we juxtaposed on-the-ground local reporting with data. This way, we reported many local stories that revealed the real-life impact of the projects funded by what the experts called “dark money” interfering with local politics to expand the influence of American right-wing religious groups. Additionally, to make these money flows transparent for our audience, we built an interactive public database containing financial income data of these organisations and their spending. The easy-to-navigate database allows one to explore this spending by region and year too, as well as different categories (eg. “anti-LGBT”, “connected to Trump”, etc). 

Our visualisation was built using VueJS. All the source code is hosted on Github; the production version is compiled and served from Github Pages. The visualisation uses flat files which are exported into CSV format from Google Spreadsheets. 

What was the hardest part of this project?

Sifting through thousands of pages of financial filings and pulling out numbers from these 990 forms was particularly hard and took meticulous attention to detail and meant we had to include multiple rounds of fact-checking, involving different team members at different times.

In terms of our interactive database, one of the challenging things was that the region definitions from the Internal Revenue Service (in terms of the set of countries included in each region) don’t easily align with regional groupings under other international definitions. We had to design our own shapefiles using QGIS in order to make the map work correctly according to the IRS definitions. The front-end visualisation is otherwise quite straightforward, and uses quite a lot of open-source software, such as Bootstrap and ChartJS. We also wrote a couple of custom scripts to extract tables stored in Google Docs into Markdown format – for example, this was used for the organisation descriptions.

Overall, this mixed-methods investigation brought along its own challenges, from dealing with raw and inconsistent data to visualising financial information in a captivating way to coordinating a network of local reporters who work in different environments with different professional risk levels. But ultimately, we produced a solid investigation reinforced by hard data and reported from the ground through powerful story-telling.

What can others learn from this project?

The key lesson for us was to realise how data-driven reporting can further and strengthen our work, shining a light on the backlash against women and LGBTIQ rights around the world. Through data work, we not only followed the money but also the influence and interference from the US-based religious groups to the rest of the world. This made us realise that hard data can be utilised well to tell human rights stories, go beyond only micro-level testimonies and see the larger picture, patterns and global trends. We, however, also learned that it is crucial to be able to fuse traditional reporting and data work, which complemented each other in our project. This type of mixed-methods approach allowed us to tell impactful stories in the public interest that no single journalistic method could tackle so effectively. At the same time, we believe it is vital to appreciate the amount of work required to decipher public – especially financial – data and make it accessible to a wider audience. For this, we depended on collaborating globally with our local reporters and editors, as well as tech developers, to ensure that our data collection process was meticulous and that our data was consistent and accurate. This showed us that being able to effectively collaborate across borders is an essential part of large-scale investigations. To facilitate this further, after publication, we created an elaborate methodology dossier which we shared with journalists globally who were interested in replicating our work. As a result, several newsrooms worked on local investigations using our raw dataset as well as our findings. Learning from this, we aim to share more data earlier, therefore collaborating more widely in the future when it comes to data-driven stories that have potential for strong impact in the various localities.  

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