SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Rumble, an upstart website with a reputation for spreading misinformation about vaccines and the 2020 election, has financial ties to the wealthiest political megadonor in Illinois, according to publicly available financial documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
A simple search for the word “vaccine” on Rumble’s homepage returned three times more videos with misinformation than accurate claims, according to research published in Wired Magazine. Rumble’s presentation and distribution of video content amplified misinformation about vaccines and elections more than any other topics, according to the study’s findings.
“Whether they claim that they are responsible for this information, they they are having a role in it,” said Emily Van Duyn, a University of Illinois professor who studies politics and digital media. “That creates a situation where they need to step up and take more ownership of what content is on their platform.”
The University of Illinois’ Center for Advanced Studies recently sponsored an event exploring ‘Conspiracy, Misinformation, and the Infodemic,” which warned of the dangers of misinformation spreading online.
“People are always going to create a space like Rumble,” Van Duyn said. “You can take Rumble, but they’re going to build a new one. We can play ‘Whack a Mole’ as much as we want with all of these platforms for disinformation, and these platforms for conspiracy. I think the scarier part is when that kind of stuff enters more of these like Facebook mainstream platforms, and they get away with it. And then they use those mainstream spaces to radicalize people to these ideas.”
The company was created to compete with rival YouTube, which has taken recent steps to stifle the spread of misinformation, such as false or misleading claims about the 2020 election results or COVID-19 vaccines. Those messages, often banished from YouTube, are welcome and widely available on Rumble.
“Rumble is designed to be the rails and independent infrastructure that is immune to cancel culture,” the company’s founder and CEO Chris Pavlovski said. “We are a movement that does not stifle, censor, or punish creativity and believe everyone benefits from access to a neutral network with diverse ideas and opinions.”
Despite the company’s claims, the content and voices most prominently featured on Rumble’s main pages are far from neutral. It’s financial backers are also active in promoting Republican party politics.
When Rumble went public on December 1st, 2021, it did so with significant financial backing of Ken Griffin’s Chicago-based hedge fund, Citadel Advisers. The Chicago-based hedge fund pooled together funds in February of 2021 to form a a special-purpose acquisition company or “SPAC” (CF Acquisition Corp. VI VI). The Griffin-backed shell company officially “merged” with Rumble. It holds 826,864 shares in Rumble, which are now worth $8,028,849 and amounts to the fifth largest holding position in Rumble.
A recent investment analyst reported the company’s stock went “soaring 10% in December,” and boasts 8 billion minutes watched in the third quarter of 2021.
Griffin, who Forbes lists with a net worth of $26.7 billion, has discussed plans to spend as much as $300 million of his personal wealth to back Republican candidates in Illinois in 2022, according to multiple reports.
At a public appearance before the Economic Club of Chicago in October, Griffin criticized the role of misinformation in spreading vaccine reluctance during the pandemic.
“We need to get past the education and conspiracy theories that are really undermining the acceptance of this vaccine amongst our broader population,” Griffin told the audience.
In the same October interview, Griffin took credit for the rapid rollout of Coronavirus vaccines, and said his company deserved credit for the success of ‘Operation Warp Speed.’
“I’m really indebted to my team for having come up with the idea for this strategy that has so impacted our country for the better,” he said. “Now, having said that, one of the frustrations is that vaccination rates in the United States have plateaued out at an unacceptably low level.”
His public statements stands in stark contrast to the vaccine misinformation that runs rampant on Rumble.
Images amplified on Rumble’s web pages describe the COVID-19 vaccines as “killer jabs.” Headlines blare, “There was never a chance the vaccine was going to work.” Its featured commentators repeat easily debunked disinformation and stoke unfounded fears about dangerous side effects from the vaccine.
A spokesman for Griffin downplayed the size of the multi-million dollar investment in Rumble, and said it did not amount to an endorsement of the website’s content.
“That investment is worth $7 million and we are a $43 billion hedge fund, so it amounts to less than .02% of our investments,” Citadel spokesman Zia Ahmed said in an email.
“Ken doesn’t have a view on every single one of the thousands of positions we hold,” Ahmed said. “It’s the portfolio managers who do. It’s like asking whether the CEO of IKEA has a view on the profitability of the various chairs and desks they sell in light of the general shift toward hybrid work. The answer would be no as he or she is focused on running or managing a global business, just like Ken.”
While investors may see potential for profit in the pages of Rumble, others see a danger to democracy itself.
“This is exactly the kind of stuff that we are concerned about,” Karen Fresco with the League of Women Voters of Champaign County said after she viewed some of the content published on Rumble’s website.
“I noticed that they had, you know, you put in election and voting, and it brings up a whole subset of that website. So that that is a hot button area for them,” she said.
A search for the word “election” on Rumble returns dozens of videos that promote false claims about the 2020 election results, warn of “sweeping election fraud across the country,” and wrongly suggest there is still path to decertify the election of President Joe Biden.
When Fresco saw the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, she organized a local task force to push back against claims the election was stolen. Her reviews of Rumble were not flattering.
“This kind of discourse, these sorts of claims, all in exclamation points, all in capital letters, so familiar to people,” she said disapprovingly. “The lies, the disinformation and misinformation about the 2020 election keeps coming up, the same things, the same false arguments.”
In a written statement, Griffin’s spokesman put distance between his investments and his personal beliefs.
“Ken was among the largest donors to President Biden’s inaugural committee, underscoring his belief in the vital importance of the peaceful transfer of power,” Griffin’s spokesman said.
However, in the last year, Griffin supported 22 House Republicans and one GOP Senator who acquiesced to the January 6th insurrectionists and voted to overturn the election results. Campaign finance records show that since January 6th, Griffin has contributed more than $1.3 million to a few dozen political committees that benefit Congressional Republicans that voted against certifying the election.
“Regardless of the big bucks that go into supporting, pushing out the disinformation and misinformation, ordinary citizens have a way to respond to it,” Fresco said. “You shouldn’t throw your hands up in despair and figure, you know, you’re being steamrolled by all of this wealth. You can really have an impact.”
Fresco said when she sees disconcerting information spreading online, it motivates her to work harder to foster a better sense of understanding and civic engagement with her neighbors.
“The League [of Women Voters] work is what’s kept me sane,” she said, “because every time I hear this stuff like the Rumble clips, I think, ‘I just need to do some hours of work for The League,’ and it makes me feel better to do something.”
Experts say viewer habits and their collective media diet also play a role in shaping the kinds of products the market offers to the public.
“It’s on the consumer, for sure,” Van Duyn said. “People pay with attention, right? What you click on matters for the profitability of that content. And people oftentimes don’t think about attention as a form of payment, but you’re rewarding these websites with your focus with your attention. And I think people can be savvy or better users by saying, ‘I’m not going to give this platform my attention.'”
What should you do when you encounter information online you think may not be accurate?
“Do not share,” Fresco warned. “Do not click. Do not share.”
The League of Women’s Voters published a recent guide to help people spot misinformation and disinformation, and to help them know how to react to it.
“I think people are hungry for this,” Fresco said. “I think they are exhausted and tired by all of the fear mongering and the high emotion. And I think they are hungry for the facts and for clear-headed, reliable information.”