Reddit Featured a Misleading Headline on Education Secretary Nominee Betsy DeVos

This headline made the top of Reddit’s r/all page on Thursday:

Meet your new a [sic] Secretary of Education: billionaire, creationist, charter school advocate, she’s anti-gay marriage, daughter of Amway founder, sister of Blacwater [sic] CEO, she is the largest donor to the worst Religious Right hate groups. Making America Great Again!

The post in the r/atheism subreddit linked to Libby Nelson’s Vox article titled “Betsy DeVos: Donald Trump’s education secretary pick shows school vouchers are at the top of his agenda,” published Wednesday. The article was informative, but the editorialized headline on Reddit was misleading. Here I examine each claim and describe my attempt to report the issue.

I neither assert equivalence of social media misinformation between the left and right (right-wing posts are at least twice as likely to be false), nor endorse this nomination.

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“billionaire”

PROBABLY

Betsy’s father, Edgar Prince, founded the Prince Corporation, which was sold for $1.35B in 1996, the year after his death. Betsy is one of Edgar’s four children.

Forbes estimates the net worth of Betsy Devos’s father-in-law, 90-year-old Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, at $5.1 billion. Betsy’s husband, Dick DeVos, is one of Richard’s four children.

Betsy and Dick DeVos also founded the Windquest Group in 1989, a private equity firm which Betsy serves as chairwoman.

Betsy and Dick’s combined joint stakes of the Prince fortune, Amway fortune, and own venture may not exceed a billion, but Snopes estimates that it does so I’ve rated it “probably.”

“creationist”

MAYBE

While Betsy and Dick DeVos are prominent members of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, which believes in creationism, they haven’t themselves made public statements on it. Betsy’s Washington Post profile states “She will not likely be one to focus on curriculum issues like evolution and creationism, which has been a concern in some conservative Christian circles.”

“charter school advocate”

TRUE

Nelson writes in Vox:

DeVos has a long history of activism on one issue: school choice — a term that refers to both school vouchers, which allow parents to use taxpayer money to send their children to private school, and charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run [and are not religious].

“anti-gay marriage”

HUSBAND WAS IN 2008

According to the nonpartisan followthemoney.org, Dick DeVos (Betsy’s husband) gave $20,000 to a ballot committee supporting Michigan’s 2004 Prop 04–2, an amendment to the state constitution which banned same-sex marriage. The proposal passed with 59% of the vote. In 2008, he gave $100,000 to Florida’s Amendment 2 which also defined marriage as between a man and a woman. The proposal passed with 62% of the vote.

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In June, Betsy and Dick gave $400,000 to victims of the shooting at Orlando’s gay Pulse nightclub.

Note: Searching for DeVos gay marriage yields several articles claiming that Dick and Betsy have a more extremist opposition to same-sex marriage. Much of these articles focus on the broader DeVos family, where evidence is more abundant. Several also claim that Betsy and Dick DeVos spent $200,000 (not $20,000 as shown in followthemoney.org) on Michigan’s 2004 measure banning gay marriage, and that they led the effort. This claim seems to originate with an article by LGBT publication PrideSource, which states “In 2004 Betsy and Dick DeVos led the effort to put the anti-marriage amendment on the ballot and contributed over $200,000 to the campaign to enshine [sic] discrimination into the Michigan constitution.” I’ve asked PrideSource for a primary source on this, given the conflicting data and lack of evidence they led the effort.

“daughter of Amway founder”

DAUGHTER-IN-LAW

Amway was founded by Richard DeVos, father of Betsy’s husband Dick DeVos. Amway “is an American company that uses a multi-level marketing model to sell a variety of products, primarily in the health, beauty, and home care markets.” Along with other companies adopting multi-level marketing models, Amway has been criticized for its similarity to pyramid schemes.

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“sister of Blacwater [sic] CEO”

Former CEO (1997–2009)

According to Wikipedia, Blackwater, now known as Academi, “is an American private military company, originally founded in 1997 by former Navy SEAL officer Erik Prince.” Erik is the brother of Betsy DeVos (nee Prince), and after founding Blackwater in 1997 he “served as its CEO until 2009 and later as chairman, until Blackwater Worldwide was sold in 2010 to a group of investors.” Blackwater was a controversial piece of the Iraq war, symbolizing the military-industrial complex after receiving a no-bid contract and later killing civilians in multiple incidents.

To the extent that the headline suggests a conflict of interest, it’s noteworthy that Erik Prince has not been involved in the organization for seven years. He currently heads a private equity firm.

“largest donor to the worst Religious Right hate groups”

A STRETCH

MediaMouse — a progressive blog focused on Grand Rapids area — has catalogued the network of conservative individuals and organizations in West Michigan. Of organizations profiled on this site, her page claims she is linked to the pro-life Compass Academy, laissez-faire climate-change-denial Acton Institute, and Education Freedom Fund which provides scholarships for private schools. None are designated hate groups, and from their descriptions none seem to be anywhere near the most hateful religious right groups out there.

I shared this information with the r/atheism moderators to justify flairing (tagging) the post as “Misleading title.” They could also add a “stickied” comment with clarifications, which sits at the top of the comment tree for everyone to see. They declined, saying that

There are plenty of sources in the thread corroborating every single item in the headline, so, no thank you.

None of the top 100+ comments at the time included any such corroboration, aside from a link to MediaMouse, and some comments questioned the claims.

The user who posted the story has a history of sensationalist titles getting to the front page of top subreddits like r/atheism. And subreddit moderators are incented to have popular posts, as getting featured on r/all often leads to new subscribers.

Some subreddits like r/news (a default subreddit, meaning it’s shown on reddit.com for new or logged-out users; r/atheism is not default) have stricter headline requirements, such as using the a line from the article itself. That would have helped here, but even basic fact-checking should be the norm for such prominent sites. Reddit administrators (who have more privileges than subreddit moderators) could take a stand on this too; while r/all is intended to be unfiltered, they could at least check titles for factual inaccuracies.

Reddit isn’t the only place Betsy DeVos has been mischaracterized. A meme has been going viral on Facebook claiming she gave $9.5M to Trump’s campaign and $200M to Christian schools and organizations. The former claim is false: neither Betsy nor Dick nor Betsy and Dick as a couple gave to Trump (though they gave to other GOP candidates), and Betsy did not endorse Trump. Her brother, Erik Prince, also did not donate to the Trump campaign. Snopes looked into the latter claim (with the rest of the meme) and rated it true based on their total giving, but it’s unclear whether they actually donated a full $200M to Christian causes.

Betsy DeVos is an understandably controversial nominee. Her lack of government experience creates uncertainty about her management capacity. Charter schools and vouchers are lightning rods, especially for teachers unions, which include the largest union in the US. Poor charter school results in Detroit where she exerted influence suggests she may be driven more by ideology than by evidence. And her deep involvement in local Christian organizations combined with voucher support suggests she may try to divert public funds to religious schools (this prospect concerns me most).

There’s no need for the exaggeration and fabrication more commonly found on the right. Legitimate criticism of this nomination can stand on its own.

Update: after posting this to r/atheism, they locked the post, threatened to ban me, and then banned me for “brigading”.

This post has been updated to reference Snopes’ fact-checking of the Facebook meme. It has also been corrected to reflect that r/politics is not a default subreddit. It was later updated to include Erik Prince’s lack of Trump campaign donations.

Written by

Economist. Founder and president of the UBI Center. Studied at MIT and UC Berkeley. YIMBY. Former Google data scientist.

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