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Tech giants police their own online campaign ads as government disagrees on regulation

Top-spending campaigns flagged for ads violating Google, Facebook policies

By: Jamie Grey and Lee Zurik

Originally Published: September 29, 2020

(InvestigateTV) – On websites and social media sites from Facebook to Instagram, political campaigns are trying to click with voters.

“Do President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump still have your support?”

“Did you see who Joe Biden picked for VP?”

“Who would Jesus vote for?”

All of those ads were designed to get potential voters to engage. Links route to surveys, campaign pages, blogs, online shops or email address collection and campaign donation sites.

Online ads are hugely beneficial to political campaigns. Instead of placing an ad in the biggest paper in a swing state or buying a slot during a primetime show with a possible demographic match to a campaign – strategists can drill down deeper.

These Facebook ads ran in September and attempt to get users to engage with campaigns. Often campaigns use interactive ads to get people to donate money, take surveys or provide contact information. Facebook has rules dictating interactive ads – including that anything that appears to work like a survey with clickable options actually works in the way it is portrayed. Source: InvestigateTV Illustration, Images from Facebook

They can stick their ads on websites where supporters are likely to already be. They can target male or female, young or old voters in geographically precise areas.

But another difference between the online ads and traditional media: There’s no government regulation or oversight from the Federal Elections Commission.

The ever-changing rules come from Silicon Valley.

“The American public deserves the same information from every person or group that places an ad,” said former FEC commissioner Ann Ravel. “Facebook, Google, Twitter, they all have different rules. So, the information being provided isn’t the same. And that’s what people need in order to make good decisions when they vote.”

While those tech giants such as Google and Facebook have their own policies in place to root out misleading ads, sometimes those ads are distributed anyway. It may take time to be caught or taken down.

Policy-violating ad removed after it already ran millions of times

President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign ran Facebook ads that asked people to take a survey by stating, “We need Patriotic Americans like YOU to respond to this census… with the detailed data we need for YOUR CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT.”

A link in the ad leads to a page stamped “For Official Use Only,” “Certified Website of Donald J. Trump” and “Official 2020 Congressional District Census.”

Facebook removed this ad, left, paid for by the Make America Great Again Committee in March. The ad appeared running through President Donald Trump’s and Vice President Mike Pence’s candidate pages. The ad linked to an outside page, right, that had language including “Official 2020 Congressional District Census.” Facebook said the ad could confuse people about the real census. Source: InvestigateTV Illustration

It is not the official 2020 census. Facebook pulled the ad in March saying the ad violated a policy to prevent confusion with the census.

According to InvestigateTV’s analysis of Facebook’s ad archive, variations of that ad ran hundreds of times over four days. It popped up in the feeds of Americans in all 50 states.

Through Trump’s page alone, the Trump Make America Great Again Committee spent at least $50,000 to run versions of that ad. It appeared on Facebook feeds at least 3 million times. Variations also ran through Vice President Mike Pence’s page.

That same month, Facebook also removed an ad placed by Biden for President because it violated the site’s advertising policies.

That ad asked people to respond to a poll: “Do you support protecting and building on Obamacare?” It featured a photo of the former vice president, now Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden smiling alongside former President Barack Obama.

Facebook removed this campaign ad, left, in March 2020 saying it violated ad policies. The ad, paid for by Biden for President, appeared to be a poll about Obamacare and linked to an outside page, right, with boxes to insert contact information. Facebook did not respond to InvestigateTV’s questions about why this ad was removed. Source: InvestigateTV Illustration

The ad said there was a limited amount of time to respond and a set number of responses still needed from “concerned Americans.” The image had the words “yes” and “no” – but if a user clicks the image, rather than answering a poll on Facebook, it leads to another page.

That click would lead to a campaign page with an actual poll and a form for contact information.

Facebook did not respond to requests for comment about why that ad was removed, but it appears it may violate its policy prohibiting images that make it seem like you can click buttons on the ad image that don’t actually work – but rather lead to an outside page.

The ability to target various audiences is worth big bucks to candidates. Since May 2018, Facebook reports $1.9 billion in sales of ads related to social issues, elections or politics.

“The ability to alter different ads for different groups that you want to persuade is so much better,” said Ravel, the former FEC commissioner.

Just this year, advertisers have spent $68 million to run Trump ads and $64 million on Joe Biden ads.

Majority of top campaigns have ads flagged by Google

Campaigns spend millions of dollars each cycle on online advertisements. On Google’s properties alone, which includes YouTube, campaigns have spent more than $447 million on ads since May 31, 2018, according to the company’s ad records.

According to the company’s transparency report, more than 450,000 political ads have run in that time period.

The top five spending advertisers are Mike Bloomberg 2020 Inc., Biden for President, Trump Make America Great Again Committee, Donald J. Trump for President, and Biden Victory Fund. Campaigns for the Democratic Senatorial campaign committee, and former Democratic presidential candidates Tom Steyer, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg come next.

All of those campaigns have had ads flagged by Google for violating its ad policies.

“It shows that the campaigns know how much they can push the envelope. They’re going to try to stay within it. But they’ll break it,” said Jason Mollica, a strategic communications lecturer at American University in Washington, D.C.

Campaigns, Mollica said, are getting creative. They hire strategists who can design ads that snap up more information to continue pulling the string of targeting. It’s something that’s evolved even more since the 2016 election when online ads and interference came into the spotlight.

“People know that during a campaign time, especially right now with the run for the White House that they can get stuff up there that people would think, ‘Maybe this is something that would take me to Vote for Joe Biden’ – when it’s really not. It’s a site that will get your email or get your location, and it starts targeting you with other forms of advertising. That’s where it’s different now.”

Google does not make its removed ads public, so it is unclear what the flagged ads portrayed. Google also did not respond to requests for comment.

FEC, Congress have discussed creating regulations to no avail

Various online ads posted on Google platforms and Facebook illustrate the various campaign tactics using both positive and negative imagery. These ads are all in the Google and Facebook ad libraries available to the public. Souce: InvestigateTV Illustration, Facebook and Google Images

When campaigns place ads on television, the FEC requires them to make very specific disclosures. Online, that language is not required by law.

“They aren’t regulated at all. That is the problem. Online ads, in terms of campaign finance laws and what’s required for political ads, have no regulations,” Ravel said. “The FEC has been unable to even get disclaimers on them because they’re so unable to do anything about this issue. And Congress has introduced a number of bills, but nothing has passed … in the Senate.”

Ravel served as an FEC commissioner for four years. She said in her years there, the issue of additional regulation was discussed. In particular, the commission discussed a YouTube ad that expressly advocated for a political campaign.

“I raised that issue and said, the disclosure that’s required should be the same on YouTube as it would be on television. There’s no difference,” Ravel said.
Her stance was controversial. There is big money involved in campaigns. She said she even received death threats after another commissioner spoke out against her calls for regulation.

As it currently stands, companies like Google and Facebook write their own policies.

Both maintain public databases of their ads and indicate when they have removed ads – though the completeness of the information has been questioned by critics.

Since the 2016 election, both companies said they have tightened their rules. For example, Facebook recently announced changes such as freezing the ability to place new ads the week before the election.

Mollica, the lecturer from American University, said the same regulations that apply to television and radio ads should apply to online ads because social media is no different from traditional media.

“Look, if this didn’t pass the test to run on traditional television, why does it pass the test on social media?” he said. “You’re repurposing or you’re taking news stations live at times. News stations have their own Facebook pages. You may not be a news network in a traditional sense, but you are a network that is disseminating and showing news. There should be the same standards for political advertising on social and digital networks as well.”

This year, two Democrats have introduced bills that would increase regulation of political ads and stop campaigns from being able to micro target voters.

Some states have stricter regulations that dictate online ads for state races. Those states include California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Virginia and Washington.

New Jersey’s law on retaining ad records is so strict that Google doesn’t even allow ads for state ballot measures or candidates.

Washington state’s law includes a provision that doesn’t allow Facebook ads to run in the state when they relate to local elected officials, candidates, elections or ballot initiatives.

Experts say changing things on the federal level will take time – and would be unlikely to change anything before the November election. Further, Mollica said regulators are simply too far behind right now.

“The government was so slow to realize just how much of an impact social media was going to have and the impact of digital media would have back and forth on social. They were slow to the jump, and now they’re playing catch-up and now with all of these networks still growing, and other networks popping up what seems like daily. You can’t rein it in,” Mollica said.

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