Russians Weren’t the Only Ones Running ‘Dark Money’ Ads on Facebook

Russians Weren't the Only Ones Running 'Dark Money' Ads on Facebook

A report published today hints at a vast universe of social media electioneering that reached millions of Americans last year with messages paid for by contributions that probably were illegal and came from hidden donors.

It wasn’t just Russia.

A report published today by Vice News suggests that the Russian-sponsored political advertisements Facebook published last year were part of a vast universe of social media electioneering that reached millions of Americans with messages paid for by contributions that came from hidden donors and probably were illegal.

With an investment of just over $34,000, a single Wisconsin businessman tracked down by Vice News launched 10 Facebook pages in support of President Trump, gathering more than 1.7 million “likes” from users of the social network, Vice said.

Facebook apparently did nothing to determine the real sources of the money behind such ads or to verify that the sponsors had reported their spending to the Federal Election Commission, the agency responsible for monitoring and regulating political spending. Federal law requires advertisers to notify the FEC of any expenditure over $250 that explicitly advocates for the election or defeat of a political candidate.

An estimated $1.4 billion was spent on online political advertising last year. A spokesperson for Facebook told Vice that the network’s advertising policy warns advertisers that they, not Facebook, “are responsible for understanding and complying with all applicable laws and regulations.”

A “Trump 2020” page placed by the Wisconsin businessman on Nov. 10 and spotlighted in the Vice report, “is a clear violation (of federal election law) if the person who paid to distribute this express advocacy failed to report it to the FEC,” Paul S. Ryan, Common Cause’s vice president of policy and litigation, told Vice. “But the FEC is a broken agency.”

The Vice report notes that Facebook and other websites have no legal liability if they publish ads that violate FEC rules; the law puts the burden for reporting expenditures on the person or group that placed the ads. Violators can be fined but cases typically need years to work their way through the FEC’s enforcement process and the penalties generally are small.

One FEC official, who Vice said requested anonymity to speak candidly, acknowledged that no one at the commission is actively monitoring social media for election law violations.

The commission’s low profile in policing online electioneering contrasts with its longstanding reporting requirements for broadcasters airing campaign commercials. Television and radio stations are required to maintain open-to-the-public files with information about the purchasers and cost of campaign ads they broadcast.

The Vice News report could strengthen the hand of Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-MN, and Mark Warner, D-VA, who last week notified their colleagues that they’re preparing a bill that would require Facebook and other digital platforms with 1 million or more users to maintain public files of all ads placed by individuals and groups spending $10,000 or more on political advertising.

The files, which would be available for press and public inspection on the internet, would include the ads involved, a description of the users for whom they were targeted, the number of views, times and dates of publication, rates charged and – of course – the identities of the purchasers.