Facebook has allowed political advertisers to target hundreds of misleading ads about Joe Biden and the US Postal Service to swing-state voters ranging from Florida to Wisconsin in recent weeks, in an apparent failure to enforce its own platform rules less than two months before Election Day.
The ads containing false or misleading information, primarily by a pro-Republican super PAC led by former Trump administration officials, have collectively been viewed more than 10 million times and some of the ads remain active on the service, according to an analysis of Facebook's ad transparency data by the activist group Avaaz.
Two super PACs emerged as the worst offenders in Avaaz's analysis: the pro-Trump group America First Action, and the pro-Democratic group Stop Republicans. But the report found that AFA's activities far exceeded those of Stop Republicans, both in terms of money spent and impressions received.
While Facebook allows politicians to make false claims in their ads — arguing that voters deserve an unfiltered view of what candidates and elected officials say — advertisements by super PACs and other independent groups are subject to the company's policies on misinformation.
"We reject ads that include content which has been debunked on our platform by our fact-checking partners. We are reviewing these ads, which are now inactive, to determine if they should've been rejected," Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, told CNN Business after this article was originally published.
According to Avaaz's findings, Stop Republicans spent $45,000 on 30 ads with misleading claims about the USPS beginning in late July, resulting in roughly 1 million ad impressions. America First Action pushed a far greater volume of misinformation, spending more than $287,000 on some 450 ads containing claims about Biden's tax and immigration proposals that fact-checkers rated as false or misleading. The Republican-leaning ads in the study were viewed more than 9 million times.
The Republican super-PAC also spent more money spreading false claims as a proportion of its overall Facebook spend, according to the study. Since May, America First Action has spent nearly $2.6 million on some 11,000 political Facebook ads; the $287,500 it spent on misleading ads represents 11% of its total spend since then.
Stop Republicans' misleading ads amounted to just 0.2% of its overall Facebook budget, largely because it is one of the biggest political spenders on Facebook advertising; since May, it has spent $19.7 million on some 3,000 political ads on the platform.
America First Action has close ties to President Donald Trump. Its chairwoman, Linda McMahon, is a former member of Trump's cabinet, while its spokesperson, Kelly Sadler, formerly worked in the White House communications office.
Stop Republicans appears to lack strong connections to Biden. Its executive director, Alex Morgan, was a volunteer for Jennifer Granholm's 2002 campaign for Michigan governor. Harry Pascal, founder of Stop Republicans' parent organization, Progressive Turnout Project, has worked on a number of congressional campaigns.
Studying super PAC ads
Avaaz's study looked at Democratic- and Republican-leaning super PACs identified by the Center for Responsive Politics, and also at the top-spending super PACs identified by Facebook's ad transparency center.
Though Facebook had removed about 40 of the advertisements by the time Avaaz raised the alarm to internal company moderators this week, that represented less than 10% of the total identified by the group's research. Avaaz said the ads were determined to be misleading based on fact-check articles published by Facebook's own journalistic partners.
Many of the surviving ads were virtually identical to the ones Facebook took down, indicating that while the social media giant understands the content to be problematic, it is unable or unwilling to deal with it comprehensively across its platform, said Fadi Quran, campaign director at Avaaz. And, Quran added, it highlights how brazenly some advertisers flout Facebook's policies, seemingly unafraid of a crackdown by the company.
"The objective question is, 'Is Facebook as a platform protecting and informing US citizens during this election, or are its policies as they exist today causing more harm and allowing malicious users to weaponize it?'" Quran said. "Objectively trying to answer that question, our findings indicate Facebook could be doing so much more by applying its policies."
In a statement, Progressive Turnout Project said its ads are part of a campaign to support the Postal Service amid what it called an effort by Trump to sabotage the office.
Sadler, the spokesperson for America First Action, objected to the conclusions of Facebook's fact-checking partners and accused them of Democratic activism. "Facebook's fact-check policy is a joke," Sadler said in a statement to CNN. "We will aggressively defend our First Amendment freedom, especially in this pivotal election year. We will not be censored by wannabe Democratic operatives posing as third-party arbiters of the truth."
America First Action has sent letters to Politifact and Factcheck.org, Sadler said, challenging their ratings.
Misleading ads on Biden
One recent ad claimed that Biden "will RAISE TAXES on all income groups" and that "no income group is safe" — contrary to independent analyses that showed lower-income groups would largely be insulated from Biden's tax plan. Biden's plan would directly reduce the after-tax income of the top 1% of earners by between 13% and 18%, according to a CNN fact-check, while potentially and indirectly reducing the take-home pay of lower-income earners by 0.2% to 0.6%.
USA Today, a Facebook fact-checking partner, said the claim that Biden's plan would raise rates on taxpayers making $75,000 was false. While the ad's claim may be technically true in that Americans in lower tax brackets could pay more in tax, it misrepresents the impact of Biden's plan, which falls overwhelmingly on the rich.
Another ad by America First Action misleadingly asserts that Biden "wants free health care and free tuition for all illegal immigrants." But Factcheck.org, a Facebook fact-checking partner, rated those claims as a distortion when Trump made them in a press conference earlier this year.
"Biden hasn't proposed federal student aid and free community college for everyone who came, or comes, to the US illegally," Factcheck.org wrote in July. "Biden's education plan specifically says he would make so-called Dreamers eligible for federal financial aid if they otherwise meet the requirements. Dreamers are a specific group of individuals who are already in the country and were brought here illegally as children by their parents."
Factcheck.org also clarified that Biden plans to offer undocumented immigrants the ability to "buy into" the US health care system under the Affordable Care Act, rather than giving all of them health care for free as the ad claimed.
CNN's own fact-checking has determined that Biden's policy task forces "are not proposing to create special benefits for undocumented immigrants."
Misleading ads about the USPS
The Democratic-leaning super PAC Stop Republicans, meanwhile, made definitive-sounding but misleading claims that the US Postal Service "will be G-O-N-E by the end of the year" unless Congress gives it more funding to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic.
A USA Today fact-check on a similar claim ruled that while the USPS faces a "daunting financial situation," the likelihood of outright closure is remote. And a CNN fact-check rejected claims by some Democrats that a lack of funding could disrupt mail-in voting.
Progressive Turnout Project said in a statement that the USA Today fact-check ran "two months before Louis DeJoy became Postmaster General, three months before the postal crisis and the campaign to #SavethePostOffice this summer, and three months before the Stop Republicans ad was posted."
Facebook's advertising policies explicitly ban ads "containing claims which are debunked by third party fact checkers" and warn that repeat offenders could face restrictions. The company exempts political candidates and their own campaigns from the policy, but super PACs, as independent organizations, would not be eligible for the loophole.
"Pages and websites that repeatedly share misinformation rated False or Altered will have some restrictions, including having their distribution reduced," Facebook's policies say. "They may also have their ability to monetize and advertise removed, and their ability to register as a news Page removed for a given time period."
Lack of repercussions
Despite the rules, the super PACs have not faced significant repercussions, said Avaaz, nor have users who engaged with the ads been notified that they have been exposed to misleading content.
The research comes as America First Action announced earlier this month it plans to spend $22 million on digital and TV ads in swing states in the run-up to the election, in addition to an $18 million ad blitz it announced in August.
"I consider it to be horrifying that the most vulnerable swing state voters that we have out there right now, whose decisions will determine the fate of the country, are being preyed upon by misinformation," said Nell Greenberg, campaign director at Avaaz.
Alluding to claims of anti-conservative bias by Facebook, Greenberg added: "Does it appear they're applying their policies equally? They are equally ineffectively applying their policies."