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The new dark money behind Facebook's political ads

I was on a reporting assignment today and had less time to read than usual. If something obvious seem
October 17 · Issue #229 · View online
The Interface
I was on a reporting assignment today and had less time to read than usual. If something obvious seems missing here, hopefully you’ll see it in tomorrow’s edition.
Just over a year ago, Facebook announced it would create a database of advertising and make it available for the benefit of researchers, journalists, and the public. After a successful test in Canada, Facebook introduced the archive to the United States earlier this year, and plans to introduce a modified version in the United Kingdom shortly.
Of all the steps Facebook has taken in the wake of the 2016 election to improve trust in the platform, the political ads archive has been among the most effective. It allows anyone to see what ads are running, how much money is being spent on them, and who is being targeted by them. It also requires anyone who wants to buy political ads to register with a government ID, using a code mailed to their address.
Collectively, the ads tell a story about how people are using Facebook to influence behavior, while taking steps to ensure advertisers are who they say they are.
Facebook has said that it plans to improve the archive over time. And in the weeks before the US election, some significant flaws have appeared.
In The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal finds a loophole that allows advertisers to obscure their identities rather trivially, by routing their donations through limited liability corporations. His subject is MotiveAI, a company founded by Facebook’s first and only managing editor, Dan Fletcher. Fletcher, who was hired during one of Facebook’s early explorations of journalism, has now created a company that, according to its website, “works with a small group of clients to spread ideas.”
The Daily Beast linked MotiveAI to an entity known as News for Democracy, which creates political advocacy ads and uses them to promote 14 pages that it owns. The ads, which to date have largely featured testimonials about the benefits of universal healthcare, have been mostly targeted at women between the ages of 55 and 64 in Arkansas, and mostly male Kansans under the age of 44, Madrigal reports.
In September alone, the company spent almost $400,000 on more than 16 million impressions. It’s one of the largest political advertisers on Facebook — and were it not for some sleuthing by reporters, we would have no idea who it is.
If you’re a fan of universal healthcare, this may not seem so scary. But Kevin Roose has a story today illustrating the flip side of this obfuscation. In Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, an unknown person is buying political ads that portray the Democratic candidate, Jennifer Wexton, as (among other things) a Nazi:
The ads paint Ms. Wexton as an “evil socialist,” with language and imagery not typically found in even the roughest campaigns. In one ad, which began running on Monday, Ms. Wexton is pictured next to an image of Nazi soldiers, and the ad’s text refers to her supporters as “modern-day brown shirts.” In another, which first ran this month, Ms. Wexton is compared to Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused the new Supreme Court justice, Brett M. Kavanaugh, of sexual assault. The image is captioned: “What’s the difference??? Nothing!! Both are liars.”
The person or group behind the ads is known to Facebook, but a mystery to the public. The funding disclaimer attached to the ads reads, simply, “Paid for by a freedom loving American Citizen exercising my natural law right, protected by the 1st Amendment and protected by the 2nd Amendment.” There is no other identifying information on the page.
Facebook requires advertisers to fill out a form disclosing who paid for the ads, but the advertiser can write anything they want in the field. Hence, the “freedom loving American Citizen” you see here.
Of course, corporations’ right to pump so-called dark money into elections has been upheld by the Supreme Court. As Madrigal notes, if there’s a fix here, it can’t be Facebook’s alone:
While Facebook requires all ad sponsors to send them a government ID, so that they can be “verified,” Facebook shares literally no information about the company that paid for a given ad, aside from the name. Given that LLCs are opaque and can pop into and out of existence, there is no formal mechanism for figuring out who is pushing what agenda. Though Fletcher maintains that his funding comes from Americans, it’s easy to imagine a hypothetical in which it does not. Let’s say MotiveAI had substantial Chinese or European investors. That foreign involvement could very easily be laundered through an American starting an LLC. Even better, a thicket of LLCs that would make it more difficult to connect different purchases up.
I’ve said before that one reason I started this newsletter was to track the way that influence operations on Facebook would transform as the company began taking steps to rein them in. The hidden hands behind these ads represent the new dark money in politics, and here’s hoping we find more ways to shine sunlight on them.

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And finally ...
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