In the weeks leading up to a tightly contested 2018 midterm election in Virginia, a Facebook page called “Wacky Wexton Not” ran an ad that pictured Democratic congressional candidate Jennifer Wexton next to Nazi troops. Another labeled her an “evil socialist”. Yet another referenced Nazi uniforms, stating, “Wexton and her modern day brown shirts. They Are Evil. They Hate America. They Hate You.”
You can still have a huge impact by spending very little.
Who spent $211 launching 24 anti-Wexton ads? It’s unclear. The ads state they were “Paid for by a freedom loving American Citizen exercising my natural law right, protected by the 1st Amendment and protected by the 2nd Amendment.” But there’s nothing in them – or in Facebook’s new ad library that’s designed to shine light on who’s funding political adss – that provides personal information about the person or group behind the attack on Wexton (who won her race).
This small incident highlights a bigger problem as the 2020 election looms. How so-called untraceable “dark money” Facebook ads persist via easily exploitable loopholes in the ad archive, a database created in response to foreign interference and disinformation campaigns during the 2016 election. Now heading into the 2020 election, dark money ads remain a potent political weapon that the Republican party and conservative media in particular are using to push a rightwing agenda and get Donald Trump re-elected.
“You can still have a huge impact by spending very little,” said Anna Massoglia, a researcher with the Center For Responsive Politics (CPR) who tracks dark money spending on Facebook ads. Over $600m has been spent on political Facebook ads since the platform made data public in May 2018. It’s unclear how much was spent on dark money ads, though CPR and other groups are in the process of tallying it up.
The most common dark money ads can be placed into two categories. One includes more traditional political ads from household names of dark money nonprofits like Judicial Watch, America First Policies or even Planned Parenthood on the left. Those are typically linked to the political establishment, and though the nonprofit names are attached to the ads, the groups don’t reveal their donors.
But those like the “Wacky Wexton” ads can be launched by anyone, domestic or foreign, group or person. Facebook rules require those who run political pages to provide government identification so they can be “verified”, but there’s nothing to stop foreign interests from hiring an ad buyer with a US ID, or using an affiliate company in the US. Facebook then protects its ad buyers by not divulging any personal information.
“Even though you are required to put something in the disclaimers, it’s not meaningful. You don’t get the name of who’s writing the text,” Massoglia said.
The right and left also use dark money ads to push their agendas and content. Most such pages on the right are small operations that run multiple Facebook pages pushing a conservative agenda, praising Trump and attacking liberal politicians.
The anonymous individual or groups behind the pages also sometimes misrepresent their purpose. They are what Laura Edelson, a New York University researcher with the Online Political Ads Transparency Project, calls “inauthentic communities”.
Such pages are usually centered around an identity. “On the right, the identity is ‘conservative’,” Edelson said, and “what they’re really trying to do is get your email address – they’re building lists.”
Among those is I Love My Freedom, which sends out ads attacking Democratic politicians like Nancy Pelosi and ultimately attempts to solicit users’ names and email addresses. Its pages – with names like “President Trump’s Patriot Army” and “President Donald Trump Fan Club” – also hawk “limited edition” Trump coins and other gear, which sources say is a common practice in the right’s dark money advertising.
Another group of Facebook pages that are less clearly linked include Patriot News Alerts, Breaking Patriot News, The Daily Conservative and The Conservative Institute.
Anatomy of a dark money Facebook ad network
On 4 April, the Patriot News Alert Facebook page sent out fewer than 100 ads that largely targeted women over 55, many of whom were in Florida, Texas and California. The ads showed a picture of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with text that called her Green New Deal plan not just “crazy”, but “scary”. The text continues with false claims that the Green New Deal would “ban air travel, get rid of gasoline cars, eliminate meat, remodel all existing homes, and guarantee income to all Americans too lazy to work”.
Around the same time, Breaking Patriot News and The Daily Conservative sent out about 85 nearly identical ads largely micro-targeting carefully selected demographics of Facebook users throughout the country.
The pages spent between about $1,660 and $15,000 to buy the ads, reaping between 112,000 and 418,000 impressions.
The three pages didn’t reveal their relation to those that they targeted, and there’s nothing in the ads that provides an idea of who paid for them. In her research, Edelson found that the three pages used the same ad, and Facebook’s archive shows that they share other ads that attack Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Once you have a political tactic like this, everyone will use it, especially when it’s this easy.
Clicking on an ad reveals some clues about the network of pages’ goals, which is to funnel Facebook users to rightwing blogs running largely pro-Trump stories and pushing conservative ideas.
The ad that women over 55 in Florida may have clicked on takes one to PatriotNewsAlerts.com where the reader is encouraged to sign a petition “To say ‘No’ to the Green New Deal,” but the “signature” it requires is a name and email address.
A Guardian reporter who submitted a name and email address later received an email from Patriot News Alerts with a link to a story on the Patriot News Alert blog. There’s no information about who runs the blog, but the Guardian searched the name and found it appears to be linked to conservative blogger Shaun Connell.
Connell signs several blogposts as the pages’ founder, and Patriot News Alerts shares the same Connecticut address as several other blogs. Connell is also behind Breaking Patriot News and The Daily Conservative, and the blogs are presented in a similar layout to and include some of the same writers as other right wing blogs that can be linked to Connell, like Daily Christian News.
While one end goal seems to be to push Connell’s rightwing viewpoint, another seems to be to drive traffic to his pages. It’s unclear if Connell funds the Facebook ads himself, if there are other funders involved, or whether there’s a more commercial purpose at play – some pages sell the Facebook data they collect.
Connell didn’t return an email from the Guardian seeking comment.
The four Connell-linked Facebook pages have spent about $300,000 since being created between July 2017 and September 2018.
Edlelson said she tracks dozens of similar pages on the left and right, and there are probably many more.
“The tactic started and was perfected on the right, but once you have a political tactic like this, everyone will use it, especially when it’s this easy,” Edelson said.