Even as its executives were out fiercely defending its policies on political ads this month, Facebook was allowing an obviously fake page that purported to be linked to President Trump's reelection campaign to run ads on its platform. The ads directed users to an online donation portal that claimed to be a way to donate to the Trump campaign.
The Trump campaign told CNN on Wednesday that the page, called "DonaldTrumpCampaign," was not affiliated with the real campaign and called it a "scam." After CNN contacted Facebook for comment, the company removed the page, saying it broke the platform's rules on impersonation. The page's permissions to run political ads had been "mistakenly applied," Facebook said.
The discovery raises new questions about how Facebook is policing the political ads it allows to run and if it is doing enough to stop bad actors from taking advantage of the platform. A covert Russian troll group targeted ads at American voters ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The ads run by the page parroted Trump talking points and attacks on the media, along with calls to "drain the swamp." The ads linked to a website that was designed to look like it belonged to the Trump campaign and included a donation page.
Facebook has added steps designed to vet people who run political ads on their platform and to ensure they are in the country where they are advertising. In the US, these steps include providing Facebook with a copy of a government-issued identification and a US address.
The US address that Facebook listed as being associated with the fake page belongs to a grocery store in Los Angeles. Employees who answered the phone there said they did not know about the page.
Although the phone number listed by Facebook as belonging to the advertiser appeared to be a California number, when CNN called the number it was rerouted to an online phone service -- meaning it could be operated from anywhere.
"This page violates our policies against impersonation and is not allowed on Facebook. We've taken down the Page and removed the political ad authorization, which was mistakenly applied," a Facebook spokesperson told CNN.
PayPal, which was being used to collect the money given to the site, shut down the account soon after being contacted by CNN for comment. PayPal is investigating, the company told CNN.
"President Trump has been wildly successful and millions of Americans want to help contribute to his re-election campaign. Unfortunately, this attracts bad actors who attempt to scam people out of their hard-earned money under false pretenses," the Trump campaign's communication director told CNN when he learned of the page on Wednesday.
A Twitter user alerted CNN to the page on Wednesday. The user initially thought the page was associated with the Trump campaign before realizing it was fake.
The Facebook page was set up in March 2019. Although one of the new measures Facebook introduced around political ads was a transparency tool that details where some larger Facebook pages are run from, this page, which had fewer than 100 followers, did not include that disclosure. The page only appears to have begun running ads on the platform over the past week.
The page had spent about $100 on Facebook ads which had been seen more than 1,000 times, according to Facebook data.
A corresponding Instagram page setup in March had almost 4,000 followers. The people behind the effort appear to have recently set up a Twitter account which had less than 100 followers. The Twitter page appeared to have been removed by the user shortly before the publication of this story.