Facebook allowed hundreds of misleading super PAC ads, activist group finds

Facebook VP Nick Clegg talks with Brian Stelter about the platform's latest efforts to address election misinformation. Clegg says Facebook will remove outright attempts at voter suppression and will "label any claim by a candidate where they prematurely claim victory."

Posted: Sep 23, 2020 9:50 PM
Updated: Sep 23, 2020 9:50 PM

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."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 256827

Reported Deaths: 5638
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto17257180
Hinds16331322
Harrison13567194
Rankin10804212
Jackson10453184
Lee8864141
Madison8314164
Jones6434112
Forrest6009120
Lauderdale5902186
Lowndes5405116
Lafayette499193
Lamar488565
Washington4803124
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Marshall344066
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Hancock274459
Tate273162
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Itawamba263759
Pike263778
Scott248046
Yazoo247056
Prentiss246552
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Copiah242749
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Simpson236467
Leake231765
Grenada219471
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Wayne202932
Winston201666
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Attala194259
Newton193444
Tishomingo189361
Chickasaw185044
Jasper172736
Holmes168767
Clay159833
Stone144721
Tallahatchie141934
Clarke139862
Calhoun136521
Smith121424
Yalobusha117834
Walthall112336
Noxubee110822
Greene110429
Montgomery109834
Carroll104821
Lawrence102917
Perry102631
Amite98426
Webster92824
Tunica87321
Claiborne86625
Jefferson Davis85326
Humphreys83124
Benton82023
Kemper77620
Quitman6968
Franklin66715
Choctaw60913
Wilkinson58725
Jefferson54919
Sharkey43117
Issaquena1596
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 426543

Reported Deaths: 6126
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson62752920
Mobile30551554
Madison27303186
Tuscaloosa20835267
Montgomery19192305
Shelby18693114
Baldwin16513183
Lee12603101
Morgan12321113
Etowah11805168
Calhoun11206200
Marshall10236107
Houston8681148
Cullman8094105
Limestone807474
Elmore7923101
DeKalb771597
Lauderdale763183
St. Clair7599120
Talladega6224108
Walker5930174
Jackson583741
Colbert535473
Blount532083
Autauga522755
Coffee446256
Dale399781
Franklin368148
Chilton337865
Russell335910
Covington330168
Escambia321342
Dallas305196
Chambers288669
Clarke283133
Tallapoosa2630107
Pike251329
Marion247350
Lawrence245247
Winston229035
Bibb217047
Geneva203335
Marengo200829
Pickens196931
Hale177442
Barbour173836
Fayette171226
Butler170758
Cherokee160930
Henry155021
Monroe147317
Randolph141535
Washington138326
Clay127045
Crenshaw120244
Cleburne118423
Lamar118419
Macon116835
Lowndes111535
Wilcox103621
Bullock99728
Perry98219
Conecuh95120
Sumter89526
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