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What an anti-Ted Cruz meme page says about Facebook's political ad policy

Facebook has over the past year touted the steps it's taken to make political ads on its platform more trans...

Posted: Oct 26, 2018 7:04 AM
Updated: Oct 26, 2018 7:04 AM

Facebook has over the past year touted the steps it's taken to make political ads on its platform more transparent in the wake of Russian meddling on Facebook in 2016. But hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Texas voters who were targeted by ads from an anti-Ted Cruz meme page in the final weeks of the state's U.S. Senate election campaign would have no idea who's actually behind the ads, or who's paying for them.

Both CNN Business' findings regarding the page and other recent reporting raise questions about whether Facebook's political ads policy actually informs users the way it's supposed to — and whether Facebook is doing enough to vet the pages running those ads.

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The "Crush Cruz" page on Facebook first appeared on September 12th. Since then the person or people behind the page have spent almost $6,000 on dozens of Facebook ads, which doesn't sound like much, but according to Facebook data reviewed by CNN Business, the page could have reached more than a million Texans. Facebook took away the page's ability to run political ads in its current form after CNN Business inquired about it.

The ads call Cruz a "scumbag" and "the embarrassment of Texas," and the page's main picture includes the text, "Everybody hates Cruz."

The page posts almost daily but contains no information about who is behind it or whether or not it is affiliated with a campaign or PAC.

Facebook implemented new rules for American political advertisers earlier this year. Those rules require ad-buyers to provide Facebook with a copy of a government-issued ID and their Social Security information to help prove they are citizens or permanent residents of the United States.

While Facebook itself should know the identity of whoever is behind the "Crush Cruz" Facebook page, the company does not make political advertisers disclose to the public who they really are or whether they have any connection to a campaign or PAC.

The disclaimer on ads placed by the "Crush Cruz" page simply read "Paid for by Crush Cruz."

The administrator or administrators of the page would only communicate with CNN Business through Facebook Messenger, saying they wished to remain anonymous.

They said they were not part of any campaign or PAC. "I just think it's better to spend my money this way. I wanted to donate to the [Beto O'Rourke] campaign but as much as I want to see him [O'Rourke] win I'd also like to know how my money is being spent," they wrote.

When CNN Business asked if they were going to report their $6,000 ad spend to the Federal Election Commission, they wrote, "I guess I'll have to look into that. I'm not used to doing this sort of thing. I suppose I will if that's the law. Seems like if I wanna run some little page in my spare time I should be able. Pretty sure I can."

A Facebook spokesperson said the company had stopped the "Crush Cruz" page from running political ads after CNN Business' queries because the disclaimer given, "Paid for by Crush Cruz," did not accurately represent an entity or person.

The person or people behind the page did go through Facebook's authorization process, and provided Facebook with identifying information, the spokesperson said.

Facebook's ad review process appears to have missed the disclaimer it now says was a violation of its rules until CNN Business asked about it.

Vice News reported Thursday that Facebook had also missed ads in the names of Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez that were in fact placed by Vice News as a test of the system. Facebook removed the ads after Vice News brought them to their attention.

"Enforcement isn't perfect," Rob Leathern, director of product at Facebook, told Vice News.

In a statement provided to CNN Business, Leathern said, "Inaccurate disclaimers have no place on Facebook. We proactively and reactively review disclaimers and will immediately remove those that violate. We aren't going to stop everyone trying to game the system - transparency in political ad spending is a problem that exists both on and off Facebook - but we are working constantly to make it a whole lot harder."

"Crush Cruz"

The "Crush Cruz" Facebook page occasionally links out to the website CrushCruz.com. That website was registered to a person in Texas from 2015 until 2017.

In September, a day before the Facebook page went live, the website's registration details were set to private and the company that hosts the website was changed, online records reviewed by CNN show.

This could suggest that the person who the site was registered to between 2015 and 2017 is no longer involved with the website. CNN Business was unable to reach that person.

A spokesperson for the campaign of Beto O'Rourke, Cruz's Democratic challenger, said it was not behind the page and had not been aware of it until being contacted by CNN Business.

More anonymous ads

American politics is rampant with so-called "dark" money — that is, money given to and spent by groups not required to disclose their donors — and ads are regularly run on television networks by PACs whose sources of funding are not always clear. But platforms like Facebook allow users to set up pages like "Crush Cruz" that can reach thousands of voters with ease.

CNN Business found other examples of pages running political ads that don't make clear to Facebook users who paid for them, but none that had spent as much money as "Crush Cruz." While CNN Business identified a handful of pages, there may be many more.

One page called "Memes that are right," for instance, has spent a few hundred dollars on ads, mostly deriding Democrats. The person behind that page told CNN Business in a Facebook message they were a small business owner who "believes deeply in a conservative agenda being best for our nation and has the drive to support it."

Editor's note: Facebook has given CNN and other organizations access to its ad archive API to analyze political ad spending. The data featured in this story was gathered through Facebook's public political ad website, not its ad archive API.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 333180

Reported Deaths: 7502
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto22901279
Hinds22780438
Harrison19569326
Rankin14851287
Jackson14342251
Madison10692227
Lee10437179
Jones8746169
Forrest8210157
Lauderdale7561243
Lowndes6790150
Lamar669688
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Lincoln4098115
Hancock405088
Leflore3565125
Pike3530112
Tate349588
Alcorn343974
Sunflower343093
Adams333387
Scott331775
Yazoo331173
Simpson314890
Copiah313867
Itawamba310180
Coahoma308785
Tippah298868
Prentiss292963
Covington282483
Marion279580
Leake278475
Wayne270743
Grenada266388
George261651
Newton256664
Tishomingo236869
Winston235584
Jasper226148
Attala220873
Chickasaw216360
Stone210237
Holmes195674
Clay192254
Clarke182080
Tallahatchie181742
Calhoun177532
Smith175935
Yalobusha169440
Walthall141548
Lawrence137726
Greene135734
Amite132843
Noxubee131635
Perry131038
Montgomery130944
Carroll124531
Webster117532
Jefferson Davis113334
Tunica111127
Benton104625
Claiborne104331
Kemper100729
Humphreys99133
Franklin85923
Quitman83519
Choctaw81319
Wilkinson74632
Jefferson69728
Sharkey51518
Issaquena1696
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 570667

Reported Deaths: 11483
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson834821584
Mobile45819855
Madison36785532
Tuscaloosa26757465
Shelby26612255
Montgomery25739624
Baldwin23810325
Lee16801181
Calhoun15130332
Morgan14941289
Etowah14662368
Marshall12806235
Houston11515292
Elmore10654217
St. Clair10521251
Limestone10472158
Cullman10257204
Lauderdale9991253
DeKalb9298191
Talladega8739187
Walker7594286
Autauga7419113
Jackson7269117
Blount7184139
Colbert6583142
Coffee6045131
Dale5326117
Russell465842
Chilton4645117
Covington4579125
Franklin444381
Tallapoosa4379157
Escambia420082
Chambers3852125
Dallas3688163
Clarke364462
Marion3380106
Pike324879
Lawrence3192101
Winston291072
Bibb280165
Geneva271583
Marengo258567
Barbour243461
Pickens239162
Butler236172
Hale231878
Fayette224564
Henry205145
Randolph194944
Cherokee193948
Monroe192141
Washington177139
Macon167552
Crenshaw164458
Clay162559
Cleburne159145
Lamar149538
Lowndes144354
Wilcox129231
Bullock125642
Conecuh118130
Coosa116029
Perry109928
Sumter108032
Greene97836
Choctaw63825
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