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You’re in a political ad. (But you don’t know who’s behind it)

Secret organizations spend millions on Facebook ads

By: Jamie Grey, Megan Luther, and Lee Zurik

WASHINGTON, DC (InvestigateTV) – A message from a friend alerted Meghan Milloy she was featured in a new political ad on social media showing Republican women abandoning the GOP. The friend was excited. Milloy was confused.

Unbeknownst to her, Milloy, who’s in Germany for a fellowship, had become the face of an online campaign against the Republican Party. The organization behind the ad, News for Democracy, is elusive. It doesn’t have a website, an office address or even a Facebook page.

But News for Democracy has spent millions of dollars this year on Facebook ads under the guise of dozens of obscure Facebook pages such as Better with Age, The Holy Tribune and Left AF, InvestigateTV uncovered. The ad featuring Milloy targeted states from California to New Jersey – with News for Democracy forking over at least $17,000 in seven days for that ad alone.

With lack of detail from the mysterious organization, some ads appear to violate federal campaign law and defile the goal of transparency.

New transparency initiatives

In response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the rash of fake news popping up on Facebook’s newsfeed, the company rolled out in May a new process to verify the identity of political advertisers. Facebook also created a public website that allows users to search current and archived political ads. The company continues to pull pages involved in “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” which Facebook defines as misleading others about who they are. Facebook declined an interview request.

Despite those changes leading up to the midterm elections, organizations continue to post divisive messages across the political spectrum without the public knowing who is behind them. Facebook requires advertisers to say who sponsored the ad, but advertisers to choose what to write-in under “paid for by.” That name doesn’t need to link back to a Facebook page. For example, ads criticizing then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as listed as sponsored by “Private Citizen concerned for the continued exploitation of women, children, animals.but especially equines.”

For those wanting to run political ads, Facebook verification requires a page administrator to submit a government-issued ID and provide a residential address, which the company authenticates. Facebook isn’t sharing who is behind News for Democracy, citing privacy. The Milloy ad is linked to a Facebook page called Women for Civility. The page, which was started in August, lists itself as a media company, but posts other news organization’s articles on topics ranging from sexual assault to immigration. The page even posted a Bloomberg news feature about how hard it is to spot fake video with the comment “Don’t believe everything you see.”

“It’s really upsetting,” said Milloy, a native of Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

She is the co-founder of an organization called Republican Women for Progress, a group for women who don’t feel they align with the current White House. The other co-founder is also featured in the ad, which uses an old 2017 CBS News interview. Republican Women for Progress has been unsuccessful in tracking down the organization and imploring Facebook to remove the ad, which Milloy calls “fake”.

“They are kind of piggy backing off all the work that we’ve done to make it look like, you know, we are kind of campaigning for them and we’re not,” Milloy said.

The ad is just one of thousands bought and posted by News for Democracy.

InvestigateTV used Facebook’s political ad archives to create a database of just one week of the News for Democracy ads running one month before the midterm elections. The findings: The group ran at least 435 ads, hit all 50 states, and paid between $285,000 and $1.1 million in a seven-day period.

The analysis found the ads tend to favor liberal perspectives and attack conservative viewpoints and Republican candidates. It dumped money into national issues such as the appointment of Judge Brett Kavanaugh – and thousands into opposing candidates in their home states, including at least $10,000 attacking Tennessee Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, who is running for Senate.

The Facebook ads ran associated with a dozen pages purporting to be news media pages – with titles such as Our Flag Our Country, Left AF, and Rugged Roots – that had relatively few followers.

“If the ads are not truthful or transparent they shouldn’t be going out,” said Jason Mollica, social media lecturer at American University. “You wouldn’t see it on television so you shouldn’t see it on your social media network.”

A Colorado Secretary of State filing for “News for Democracy LLC” shows a Brooklyn, New York, post office box and a Colorado law firm on the paperwork.

The law firm, Tierney Lawrence, filed for other groups that appear to have political ads on Facebook, including Smashbutton Media LLC and Right Call Media LLC. One of the attorneys at the office lists herself as general counsel for the Colorado Democratic Party. The attorney, who declined to comment, has donated thousands of dollars to various Democratic organizations and candidates over the years, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, according to FEC filings.

The lack of detail from the unknown organization is not only confusing; some of the ads targeting candidates appear to violate federal campaign law.

Federal election officials make digital decision

In December, the Federal Election Commission clarified social media political ads advocating the election or defeat of a federal candidate must follow the same disclosure laws for TV and print ads.

If a candidate or political committee sponsors an ad about a candidate, they must say so. But an unregistered organization, like News for Democracy, must list in the ad its “permanent street address, telephone number, or World Wide Web address of the person who paid for the communication and state that the communication is not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee,” according to federal law.

David Keating, president of the Institute for Free Speech, disagrees with the FEC’s interpretation.

David Keating advises hiring a campaign finance attorney before speaking out against or for political candidates. “When it comes to speech by individuals or by people banding together into groups, I think there’s already too much regulation.” (InvestigateTV)

“The idea that social media ads must have a bunch of gibberish written by the FEC and Congress that was written before anyone knew there would be an Internet… is lunacy,” he said.

The FEC has struggled to agree on a standard for political ads due to politics. In order for an ad to be investigated, the commission – made up of Republicans and Democrats – must agree that it is indeed a political ad advocating the election or defeat of a federal candidate. Ads that promote or attack a candidate, but don’t use words like “vote” or “elect” fall into a gray area where FEC commissioners must decide if a reasonable person would only deem it a political ad.

“There were ads that no reasonable person would take it for anything other than being a political ad considering the circumstances,” said former FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel. “It’s never something my colleagues could agree with.”

The agency said it could not comment on specific candidates or ads.

Facebook efforts continue

Facebook points out its new Ad Archive gives users information on more than a million political ads. The information includes who sponsored the ad, a range of how much the ad cost and how the ad performed in certain age groups.

Ads sponsored by News for Democracy wouldn’t have been discoverable before Facebook’s new initiative. But transparency has limits. When searching for ads, InvestigateTV was blocked on two different dates from Ad Archive with the message: “You have been temporarily blocked from searching or viewing the Ad Archive due to too many requests.”

This is the message InvestigateTV producers received while searching the Facebook Ad Archive on October 16 and October 25, 2018. (InvestigateTV)

Even with Facebook’s new disclosures, users aren’t paying attention, said Tulane University Professor Ashley Nelson.

“How much credibility does Facebook have right now? It doesn’t have a whole lot,” she said. “I just take everything they say with a grain a salt.”
When an organization buys an ad, it can target people – based on gender, geography, political leanings (“guessed” by Facebook for those who don’t publicly declare), and other interests. Facebook declined to release such data.

Nonprofit news organization and InvestigateTV partner ProPublica created a tool to collect such data. The Facebook Political Ad Collector, allows everyone to learn more about ad targeting. By downloading a Chrome or Firefox plug-in, users can help categorize ads as political and the targeting data is collected.

ProPublica also created a website where the public can search these ads and targeting data. For example, there is a filtering function to see ads targeting different political leanings, genders, ages and geography.

ProPublica used its database and found despite the FEC decision and the policy changes on Facebook, those requirements are largely not being followed. In February, journalists analyzed 300 ads and found fewer than 40 ads had the correct language to conform with the FEC ruling.

InvestigateTV found, for an ad about off-shore drilling, New Jersey Congressman Donald Norcross targeted people interested in beaches who lived near or visited a town in his district. News for Democracy targeted people on “customer lists provided by partners” of the pages (such as Women for Civility) – but how they created or acquired those lists remains unclear. If you want to ask Women for Civility, you can’t. The page disabled its Facebook Messenger.