The year in Popular Information

“Watershed moment in the restaurant industry.” In early March, as the pandemic began to take hold of the nation, Popular Information reported that restaurant group Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden, was not offering employees paid sick leave unless required by law. Popular Information spoke to several current and former Darden employees who shared stories of workers who would come into work sick to avoid missing a shift. Ten hours after Popular Information published its reporting, Darden, which previously lobbied against paid sick leave legislation, announced that all employees would receive paid sick leave benefits, effective immediately. 

“...After the journalist Judd Legum pointed out its long history of fighting sick-leave policies, Darden Restaurants, which runs several restaurant chains, including Olive Garden, said that its 170,000 hourly workers would now get paid sick leave,” wrote Opinion Columnist Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times. Business Insider described the move as a “watershed moment for the restaurant industry.” The story was picked up by the New York Times, The Financial Times, CNBC, and Fox

Facebook removes Trump campaign ads for the first time. Popular Information revealed that the Trump campaign was running more than 1,000 misleading ads on Facebook, encouraging users to fill out a fake "census." Initially, Facebook told Popular Information that the ads did not violate its policy on census misinformation. That morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned Facebook and the Trump campaign for the deceptive ads. 

Hours later, Vanita Gupta, a prominent civil rights advocate who helped Facebook create its census policy, emailed top Facebook executives about Popular Information’s report and Trump’s “deliberately deceptive and misleading ads.” Facebook quickly reversed course and told Gupta that the company would be taking down the ads. The story garnered heavy press coverage and was featured in various outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, AP, CNN, Politico, BBC, Reuters, The Guardian, ABC News, Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times among others.

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Expanded sick leave at the nation's largest supermarket chain. As COVID-19 cases began to soar, Popular Information reported extensively on Kroger’s inadequate sick leave policies. At the time, many employees told Popular Information that they were not receiving paid sick leave, which created an incentive to show up to work ill. Those who did have paid sick leave explained that it came with significant restrictions. Kroger proceeded to attack Popular Information, telling HuffPost that the newsletter "only serves to divide people at a time when we should all be pulling together to manage this public health crisis.” 

The next day, Popular Information reported on Publix’s much more expansive paid sick leave policy for COVID-19. The following weekend, Kroger announced a significantly expanded paid sick leave policy for COVID-19 that largely mirrored Publix’s policy. David Leonhardt of the New York Times credited Popular Information for pressuring Kroger to change its policies and expand leave. The story was also featured in Business Insider as well as the podcast On the Media.

Accountability for a corporate lobbyist attacking the Black Lives Matter movement. Popular Information identified four companies – Verizon, Abbott Labs, Comcast, and Walmart – that publicly expressed their commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement, yet were donating thousands to Matt Schlapp, a lobbyist who is an outspoken critic of Black Lives Matter. In response to an inquiry from Popular Information, Verizon announced that it terminated its contract with Schlapp. Two days after the story was published, Abbott Labs ended its $200,000 annual contract with Schlapp’s lobbying firm. The following week, Comcast told Bloomberg News that it was also severing ties with Schlapp. The three companies had been paying Schlapp a total of $480,000 annually. This reporting was also picked up by Politico.

Trump campaign caught accepting thousands from neo-Nazi leader. In August, Popular Information exposed the Trump campaign for knowingly accepting at least $2,000 from Morris Gulett, a notorious white supremacist who headed the Louisiana chapter of the Aryan Nation. Despite being aware of Gulett’s background since 2018, the Trump campaign refused to say if it would return the money. Weeks later, Popular Information discovered that the Trump campaign ended up accepting more donations from Gulett. The report also highlighted other donations the Trump campaign accepted from racist extremists. This story was picked up by Business Insider, The Daily Beast, The Forward, The Jerusalem Post, and The Times of Israel

$400 extra for frontline grocery workers. At the beginning of May, Popular Information reported that Kroger spent $340,000 to air an ad “thanking” workers and compensated CEO Rodney McMullen $21,129,648 in 2019. Despite these large expenditures and the persisting threat of COVID-19, the company planned to rescind its $2/hour “hero bonus” mid-May. The story, which inspired a letter-writing campaign by activist group Sleeping Giants, was featured in The Lexington Herald Leader and CBS News. Days later, Kroger announced that it was paying a new “thank you” bonus of $400 to all frontline workers. 

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Uncovering a large network of Facebook pages systematically spreading voting disinformation. In September, Popular Information revealed that a large network of Facebook pages and groups were spreading voting disinformation. The network was funneling traffic to an obscure right-wing website, Conservative Brief, that was distorting reports from mainstream sources to sow doubt about the legitimacy of the upcoming election. In response to an inquiry from Popular Information, Facebook said it was taking "enforcement action" against the pages in the network, dramatically decreasing its reach. 

Loeffler praised Warnock at his church. In December, as Senator Kelly Loeffler relentlessly  attacked opponent Raphael Warnock’s theology, Popular Information uncovered a video of Loeffler publicly praising the work of Warnock and his church on MLK Day 2020. In her remarks, Loeffler lauded the church, under Warnock’s leadership, for “put[ting] words into action” and “advanc[ing] the cause of freedom.” During her campaign, however, Loeffler has repeatedly distorted Warnock’s sermons and insisted that he’s the “most radical and dangerous candidate in America.” The story was featured in the Washington Post and the Daily Beast.

Major corporations pull advertising from Tucker Carlson’s show. In June, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has a history of spewing racist vitriol, told viewers that they are not “required to be upset” about the murder of George Floyd. Popular Information exposed a list of corporations that sponsor Carlson’s show, despite professing to support the Black Lives Matter movement. The story went viral and a few days later three of the corporations highlighted in the story – Disney, Papa John’s Pizza, and Vari – pulled their advertising from Carlson’s show. Popular Information’s reporting was picked up by the New York Times, CNN, The Guardian, and CBS, among others.

Rooting out vaccine misinformation on Facebook. In December, Popular Information revealed that, despite Facebook’s recent pledge to remove vaccine misinformation, false claims about the vaccine were spreading rapidly on Facebook and Instagram. Users were falsely told that the vaccines could cause genetic damage, contain brain-eating nanobots, and were part of a government surveillance initiative. A day after the article was published, Facebook contacted Popular Information to report that all of the examples highlighted in the piece violated the company’s COVID vaccine misinformation policy and were removed. 

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Amazon caught donating tens of thousands to a leading source of vaccine misinformation. A Popular Information investigation revealed that Amazon directly paid more than $41,000 to the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), one of the nation's largest sources of vaccine misinformation, since December 2019. According to documents obtained exclusively by Popular Information, the company disbursed these payments through its charitable arm, Amazon Smiles. Popular Information’s reporting was picked up by Business Insider.

Profitable steakhouse returns $20 million to taxpayers. In April, Popular Information spoke to Ruth’s Chris Steak House employees across the country and reported that the restaurant secured a $20 million PPP loan, intended for struggling small businesses, despite laying off all of its hourly workers. The restaurant chain drew in $42.2 million in profit in 2019, spent $5.2 million buying its own stock, and paid its CEO $6.2 million. The story went viral, and three days after publication, Ruth’s Chris announced that they were returning the loan. Popular Information’s reporting was picked up by Vox and GQ

Facebook admits right-wing website was violating its policies. Popular Information exposed a network of racist and violent Facebook pages that were systematically distributing content from The Daily Wire, a right-wing website founded by Ben Shapiro. Initially, a Facebook spokesperson told Popular Information that the company could not determine there was a violation of Facebook’s policies. 

A week later, upon being presented with additional evidence from Popular Information, Facebook admitted that The Daily Wire was paying the entity that controlled the pages, Mad World News, in violation of its rules. The Daily Wire, which used the illicit practice to achieve extraordinary success on Facebook, was forced to stop. Popular Information’s reporting was covered by Gizmodo and The Daily Beast

Multi-millionaire Trump donor scoops up PPP loans. In late-April, Popular Information exposed how Trump donor and multi-millionaire Monty Bennett secured $96.1 million in PPP loans intended for struggling small businesses. Owner of dozens of luxury hotels, Bennett’s companies generated combined revenue of more than $2 billion in 2019. The story went viral on Twitter, drawing more than 16,500 retweets. A week later, Bennett announced he was returning all the loans. 

Prominent law firm withdraws from Trump's frivolous election lawsuits. In November, Popular Information highlighted the clients of Jones Day and Porter Wright––two corporate law firms that were effectively helping the Trump campaign undermine the election results. Among both firms’ clients, Popular Information reported, were major corporations, including Amazon, Wells Fargo, and McDonald’s. Two days after the report, Porter Wright “abruptly withdrew” a federal lawsuit that sought to challenge the election results in Pennsylvania. At the time, Jones Day also said that it would "not get involved in additional litigation in this election.”

Facebook removes ads from congressional candidates that promote violence. At the beginning of June, Popular Information discovered that congressional candidates were creating Facebook ads that encourage violence against protestors. Popular Information brought the ads to the attention of Facebook, which eventually took them down, but not before they reached hundreds of thousands of users. The story was featured in Vice and Gizmodo

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Companies that vow to fight racism donate to politicians attacking the Black Lives Matter movement. After Senator Kelly Loeffler said she was “adamantly opposed” to the Black Lives Matter movement, Popular Information revealed that major corporations that had publicly embraced the Black Lives Matter movement, including Google, AT&T, Sony, and Target, donated to Loeffer’s campaign. In response to an inquiry from Popular Information, Boston Scientific renounced their support. CNN picked up the story the next day, and Sony and Target distanced themselves from Loeffler.

The following week, Popular Information reported on corporations that support Jim Hagedorn (R-MN), a congressman who used white nationalist rhetoric to attack the Black Lives Matter movement. Intel told Popular Information it was requesting a refund of its $4000 donation. UnitedHeath, one of Hagedorn's largest corporate donors, also released a statement shortly after Popular Information’s story was published condemning Hagedorn’s comments and pledging to not contribute to his campaign. Multiple outlets in Minnesota picked up the story.

Dangerous Boogaloo movement booted from Facebook. In January, Popular Information exposed the right-wing Boogaloo movement that was using Facebook to encourage violence at a gun-rights rally in Virginia. Months later, Facebook began prohibiting the use of Boogaloo-related terms when accompanied by statements or images depicting armed violence. Yet, in June, after a Boogaloo member who was active on Facebook killed a federal officer, Popular Information discovered that Boogaloo pages advocating for violence were still appearing in feeds and being recommended by Facebook. A few weeks later, Facebook finally banned Boogaloo groups entirely. Popular Information's story was featured in the New York Times

Exposing Facebook's special treatment for climate misinformation. In a joint investigation with HEATED, a climate newsletter by journalist Emily Atkin, Popular Information reported that Facebook exempted an “opinion” piece published in the Washington Examiner promoting climate misinformation from fact-checking. The intervention effectively granted climate change deniers special treatment. The story was covered in The New Yorker’s Climate Crisis newsletter

A few weeks later, Popular Information and HEATED revealed that a fact-check of a viral climate misinformation article published by The Daily Wire was removed from Facebook. Internal documents obtained by Popular Information showed top executives were alerted of concerns prior to the removal of the fact-check, raising further questions about the integrity of Facebook’s fact-checking processes.

Happy New Year!