Secret groups make tracking Facebook political ad origins a challenge

Secret groups make tracking Facebook political ad origins a challenge
Polarizing political ads on on Facebook sometimes fill up your feed. Some even appear to violate federal law because they hide the identity of the people or groups responsible for the ads. (Source: Phillips, Patrick)

(INVESTIGATE TV) - Facebook’s crackdown on misleading political ads continues with suspicious pages being taken down, but there are still questions about political ads that are paid for by secret groups.

From a Spanish language ad mocking Florida Gov. Rick Scott to another making fun of Arizona Congressswoman Kyrsten Sinema, polarizing political ads on on Facebook sometimes fill up your feed. Some even appear to violate federal law because they hide the identity of the people or groups responsible for the ads.

Some even cost taxpayers money.

One reason tracking ads can be a daunting task is that while Facebook has measures to help the average person identify who is running the ads, a sponsor can run them under multiple obscure Facebook pages. A click will take you to their pages with very few followers.

In one example, you have to pay attention to figure out the ads are sponsored by NRSC, the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The committee would not respond to a request for comment.

Other pages with few followers and lots of ads lead to groups like the left-leaning group News for Democracy. There’s no Facebook page, website or even a physical address.

Investigate TV analyzed one week of the group’s Facebook ads, finding it ran nearly 450, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in just seven days. People saw the ads in all 50 states.

But even some of the people featured in ads sponsored by News for Democracy don’t know who the group is.

“I think it’s a little bit troubling to be associated with a group that we have no idea who they are,” Meghan Milloy, co-founder of Republican Women for Progress, said.

Milloy unknowingly appeared in a News for Democracy ad about Republican women turning on their party.

“They are using the text as if it’s me talking about myself,” she said. “Which, you know, it’s close, but it’s not exactly the same.”

Milloy is still a registered Republican. Her organization tried to reach News for Democracy and Facebook. Milloy’s group wants the ad removed, but their efforts have been unsuccessful.

Seems like you can kind of go through the back end of Facebook and they’re kind of there. They’re funded by “News for Democracy” or some kind of shell group or something like that. It’s very difficult to figure out anything about who’s behind it, who’s funding them, you know, where they are, or how we even get in touch to say “Hello, thank you for using our likeness. We don’t want that.”

Here’s where it all gets tricky. Federal law does not require disclosure on some political ads. But if a candidate is named and the ad expressly advocates for or against a candidate, there has to be disclosure. News for Democracy is not registered as a political action committee. So these ads must state the name and permanent street address, telephone number or 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.

None of these candidate ads do.

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

In fact, the Federal Communications Commission requires television stations to keep a detailed account of all political spending, making the cost of commercials, when they ran and who paid for them all easily available online. Ads on Facebook are not as transparent.

“People are really concerned about transparency and trust,” Mollica said. “They want to be able to trust our networks and social media but if ads like this are getting up there and Facebook is saying, ‘we’re trying to make sure that this doesn’t get up’ and it’s still getting up, more needs to be done.”

Ashley Nelson teaches a social media course at Tulane University. She says most of the ads she has seen violate some part of the guidelines and admits there’s little Facebook can do.

“How do you police this? I mean, you’ve got two billion users out there,” she says.

Questions about Facebook ads even involve taxpayer money. The House of Representatives allows members of Congress to spend office money on advertisements to their constituents. Investigate TV discovered similar ads for congressmen, one paid by taxpayers, the other, their re-election campaign. California’s Ami Bera. With taxpayer money, he tells constituents he helped more than 10,000 residents in Sacramento County, and with the campaign money, he tells voters, once again, that he helped more than 10,000 people in Sacramento County.

“Members of congress are using tax funds to basically spread political messages in their district,” Institute for Free Speech President David Keating said. “It’s a form of secret taxpayer funding of campaigns, but only for the incumbents.”

New Jersey’s Donald Norcross loves animals, is against offshore drilling and spends taxpayer and campaign money to tell you about it. It’s the same message with two different pots of money.

“Our country has a lot of needs,” Keating said. “Making the local congressman look good with Facebook ads really isn’t one of them.”

Bera and Norcross did not respond to requests for a comment.

And while the house allows representatives to spend office money on Facebook ads, the Senate has banned it.

“The senators, I think have acted with more, you know, principles here than house members have,” Keating said.

According to one advertising research group, in 2014, candidates and committees spent $71 million in political ads online. For the 2018 midterm elections, that same research group estimates the spending will grow to $1.8 billion. It’s why experts say we need greater transparency so that we know the motive and the money behind each Facebook post.

“It’s terrifying for transparency and I think it can have a real impact on people that may not, you know, want to dig in to the back end of the Facebook ads and want to, kind of, do their research,” Milloy said.

Pages associated with News for Democracy appear to all still be active.

Facebook declined a request for an interview.

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