Who paid for that political ad in your Facebook feed? It’s not always easy to figure out

SAN FRANCISCO – Who was trying to influence your vote in the midterm elections? On Facebook, it was not always easy to find out. 

Political advertisers are required to fill in a field that says who paid for the message in your news feed, but that does not necessarily tell you who they or their backers are.

Entities can write whatever they want in that field as long as it’s not deceptive or misleading. A growing number of Facebook ads in the run-up to the election took advantage of that loophole to obscure or conceal the identity and political motives of who paid for them – and Facebook did not catch it. That allowed some Facebook pages to remain anonymous while stirring political discord.

Take a Facebook page called Defending Donald, which spent $14,535 on 94 political ads, reaching hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of users. Some were pro-Trump ads such as this one that was displayed to Facebook users as many as 200,000 times: “The House and Senate have done a horrific job backing up the president on protecting pre-existing conditions.” But the Facebook page itself sometimes sent mixed political signals. Read one post: “Trump: Laughingstock of UN.”

The disclaimer on the ads said they were paid for by the Facebook page, with no indication of who was behind the Facebook page or who was behind an affiliated website by the same name.

Some Facebook users who felt tricked by ads into visiting the Facebook page vented their frustration in the comments. “This site, Defending Donald, is a scam people,” wrote one. “It’s a liberal site.”

The administrator of the Facebook page, which has 17,000 followers and was created in June, did not respond to a request for comment.

Alerted by USA TODAY, Facebook said it has requested “appropriate verification,” such as a Federal Election Commission number or employer identification number, from the purchaser of the Defending Donald political ads. 

Facebook doesn’t try to verify who’s behind every political ad, but political advertisers must accurately represent themselves, and most of them do, the company says. When Facebook identifies potentially deceptive or misleading disclaimers, it investigates and may remove them. Facebook says it’s exploring “additional checks” to prevent abuse.

After ads on the social network were used to spread disinformation and divisive Russian propaganda during and after the 2016 presidential election, Facebook tightened its policies around political ad buying.

Any people or groups who want to buy political ads on Facebook are required to verify their identities and prove they have a mailing address in the U.S. The ads, whether they are targeted at political campaigns or discuss issues of national importance, are kept in a searchable database for seven years, offering a rare glimpse into how political campaigns target Facebook users. 

Families for Trump, with 11,000 followers, also created in June, is another Facebook page buying up political messaging to lure Facebook users, spending $10,516 on 57 ads. But the Facebook page doesn’t always offer up the pro-Trump posts that those Facebook users expect. 

One post on Families for Trump claimed Republican tax cuts had failed to help families. Another post commented: “This seems to be a growing sentiment among many swing voters regarding healthcare” on an article written by a swing voter who leaned Republican but changed her mind over the treatment of preexisting conditions.

“What exactly is this?” one bewildered Facebook user asked in the comments.

Families for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.

Facebook pages hawking ads that target Democrats or Republicans then bombard them with messaging from the other side of the aisle proliferated in the weeks before the midterm elections, according to Damon McCoy, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering.

“Groups create these disingenuous, grassroots-looking communities on Facebook, and you can’t trace these damn things,” he said. “There are so many of them, we can’t even catalog them all. They are popping up left and right.”

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