Project Veritas, founded a decade ago by James O’Keefe, has been a major player in the political and culture wars during the presidencies of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
In early February, Project Veritas became yet another popular conservative voice to get the boot from Twitter. According to CNN, the platform’s official reason for permanently banning the group was “repeated violations of the platform’s policies prohibiting sharing — or threats of sharing — other people’s private information without consent.”
Project Veritas, founded a decade ago by James O’Keefe, has been a major player in the political and culture wars during the presidencies of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump. The group’s stated goal is exposing the truth within American’s institutions, but its political leaning is unabashedly conservative and it has repeatedly been accused of distorting and misrepresenting facts.
With its recent ban from Twitter, Project Veritas has the social media company and its chief executive officer, Jack Dorsey, in its crosshairs. As an organization that thrives on its viral videos and posts, though, losing its access to major platforms could cause irreparable damage to Project Veritas’s influence.
Who is James O’Keefe?
James Edward O’Keefe III was born in June 1984 in New Jersey. He attended Rutgers University, which is where he first emerged as, in the words of The New York Times, a “political gadfly.”
Using a hidden camera, O’Keefe and a group of friends, posing as members of the fictitious “Irish Heritage Foundation,” met with a university official to protest the dining halls serving “Lucky Charms” cereal.
While the video, in which O’Keefe describes the offense caused by the cereal’s mascot, Lucky the Leprechaun, was intended as a satire of people who protest ethnic stereotypes, it also served as a template for his career of hidden video activism.
In 2009, at the age of 25, O’Keefe broke into the mainstream when he and a friend surreptitiously filmed a meeting with employees of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). ACORN is an international community organizing group which formerly had branches throughout the United States.
ACORN, which advocated for low-income families, had become a target of conservatives for allegedly committing voter fraud during the 2008 election in favor of then-candidate Obama.
In edited videos, O’Keefe and his friend, 20-year old Hannah Giles, posed as a pimp and a prostitute and asked ACORN workers for advice on helping them perform illegal activities, including creating a prostitution ring. The videos spread quickly and ACORN faced government investigations into its operations. Under heavy scrutiny, the organization lost much of its government funding and its US-based operations crumbled in 2010.
However, investigations ultimately found no illegality on the part of the organization. The videos were determined to have been selectively edited. One of the ACORN employees who had been filmed, Juan Carlos Vera, sued O’Keefe for filming him without permission and falsely portraying him as helping to establish a prostitution ring. O’Keefe settled the lawsuit in 2013 for US$100,000 and offered an apology.
By that time, though, O’Keefe had established Project Veritas (“veritas” is Latin for “truth”). The group relies on O’Keefe’s usual bag of tricks, frequently using hidden cameras and disguised identities in its investigations.
In 2010, O’Keefe was arrested for attempting to break in and tap the office phones of Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu. O’Keefe said he believed the senator was ignoring phone calls from her constituents during the debate over the Affordable Care Act. O’Keefe was required to pay a US$1,500 fine and sentenced to three years of probation and 100 hours of community service.
The mission and values of Project Veritas
The Project Veritas website provides the following Mission Statement for the group: “Investigate and expose corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud, and other misconduct in both public and private institutions in order to achieve a more ethical and transparent society.”
Beneath that mission statement is a list of the group’s “Ethical Values,” which include 12 points. Among those values is adherence to 1st Amendment rights and a vow that they do not seek to embarrass private individuals. “The irrelevant religious or sexual dispositions of our targets are not to be investigated.”
Some of the ethical rules, however, butt up against the group’s reported misdeeds. For instance, “Rule #1” is “Truth is paramount.” It states that their reporting “is fact based with clear and irrefutable video and audio content. Truth is paramount. We never deceive our audience. We do not distort the facts or the context. We do not ‘selectively edit.’”
That is a questionable assertion after a 2020 Project Veritas campaign in which the group sought to expose alleged voter fraud by progressive Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar. A video released in September 2020 showed an interview with a man, Liban Mohamed Osman, who claimed to have been directed by Omar to illegally collect voter ballots.
Weeks later, Osman reported he had been offered a US$10,000 bribe to appear in the video. Additionally, fact checks of the claims in the videos (which included unverified translations from Somali to English) found no evidence of voter fraud.
(The release of the video also appears to have been timed to coincide with the release of The New York Times’s report that Trump paid next to no taxes. Trump had previously praised O’Keefe during an event for social media influencers at the White House, saying of him, “He’s not controversial, he’s truthful.”)
Another rule, “Rule #11,” states “We do not manufacture content.” This also is a questionable claim, considering Project Veritas was found to have sent in a woman to The Washington Post to falsely accuse Republican Roy Moore of having impregnated her.
At the time, Moore, who was running against Democrat Doug Jones for the Alabama Senate seat, was facing multiple credible accusations of sexual harassment and assault, including from women who were teenagers at the time of the alleged conduct.
Project Veritas’s attempt to seed a fake story to the Post was apparently an effort to undermine the testimony of the accusers, some of whom had initially reported to the paper.
Despite these glaring lapses of journalistic integrity (and a few other instances of questionable ethics), Project Veritas has gained a loyal following, particularly among conservatives, for its hidden camera exposés and critical reporting on media outlets.
In 2019, Project Veritas posted a video of ABC News reporter Amy Robach expressing anger that her network had years earlier killed her story on billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein. In a flustered moment caught on a hot mic, Robach said her story would have exposed “everything” about Epstein, former President Bill Clinton and British Prince Andrew.
Epstein was arrested for child sex trafficking in 2019 and committed suicide while in prison (though some have questioned the official cause of death).
Project Veritas versus social media
In recent months, O’Keefe and Project Veritas have turned their attention to social media platforms and their supposed censorship of conservative voices, including Trump. O’Keefe has claimed he has evidence that Twitter is intentionally seeking to ban (or “shadow ban”) conservatives and that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is planning to enact widespread censorship.
While Project Veritas’s Twitter account was permanently banned this month, O’Keefe’s personal account was only temporarily blocked. He has continued to attack the social media platforms, including repeatedly tweeting a heavily edited video in which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears to express concern that the COVID-19 vaccines will modify DNA (they do not).
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