‘Dark Money’ Helps Pay for Pro-Trump Facebook Ads
Mushrooming evidence that personal information about millions of Americans was shared by Facebook with political front groups that used it to help elect President Trump is strengthening the case for requiring those groups to disclose their donors publicly.
OpenSecrets.org reports this morning that Secure America Now, a “social welfare” organization that during the 2016 presidential campaign produced an incendiary video depicting a future “Islamic States of America,” was largely bankrolled by multimillionaire Republican donor and hedge fund investor Robert Mercer.
Mercer donated more than $22 million to candidates and political committees during the 2016 election cycle, according to public records. His previously undisclosed $2 million gift to Secure America helped that group produce the Islamic States video and direct it at Facebook users in swing states.
The donation came to light only because Secure America’s accounting firm neglected to black out Mercer’s name when it provided a copy of its tax return to OpenSecrets. While federal law requires social welfare groups to disclose their donors to the Internal Revenue Service, the IRS keeps the names secret.
They shouldn’t be. Federal election laws mandate disclosure of donations to candidates and political parties; the requirement is based on the principle that voters have a right to know who is spending money to influence our votes and who candidates will be indebted to if they’re elected.
But thousands of wealthy political investors like the Mercer family have found a way to hide their political spending in the form of social welfare – aka “dark money” – groups like Secure America. Such groups put nearly $176 million into the 2016 campaign.
To retain their tax-exempt status and their right to keep their donors secret, the groups are supposed to limit their political expenses to less than half their total spending. Lax enforcement has allowed many of them to do far more than that, however – an OpenSecrets report in 2016 observed accurately that the IRS and the Federal Election Commission “are about as good at effectively policing dark money groups as your cat is at catching reflections on the wall.”
Some of the social welfare groups take extra care to hide their donors by funneling their contributions into other groups. In addition to the $2 million it received from Mercer, Secure America got $2 million from the 45Committee, another social welfare group which is itself partly funded by still other social welfare groups.
The Islamic States video and other political ads purchased by Secure America in 2016 were targeted to show up in the Facebook feeds of voters thought to be receptive to their messages, Bloomberg News reported last October. The ads did not mention Trump but their message dovetailed with his campaign pledge to stop all Muslims from immigrating to the U.S..
Facebook even worked with Secure America to post 12 different versions of the video to test which was most effective, Bloomberg reported.
Mercer is among President Trump’s most prominent financial backers. He also provides the financial muscle for Breitbart News, the pro-Trump website that during the campaign was run by Steve Bannon, who later became Trump’s top political strategist. Bannon left the White House last summer to return to Breitbart but was let go there after author Michael Wolff quoted him making critical comments about the president.
The Mercer family also is the financial wellspring of Cambridge Analytical, the London-based firm that purchased personal information on millions of Americans from Facebook and used it to help the Trump campaign target its messages.