Back in April, I had a post where I expressed skepticism that Facebook’s plan for voluntary disclosure of who is running political ads will actually work. Here’s a snippet:
Here’s a hypothetical to flesh out some issues. Let’s assume that Facebook, working with these third parties, can successfully identify key issues like “Black Lives Matter,” immigration, or gay rights and religious liberties. Suppose an ad comes in from a group formed in the U.S. called “Traditional Values Coalition” or “Progress Now!” running ads on LGBT issues.
- Will Facebook require these groups to disclose their donors? What if their donors consist of a series of shell groups, hiding the real identity of the group? How will Facebook know that they’ve figured out who the real donors are?
- What happens if Facebook determines that some of the donors are foreign? Will it apply a percentage test?
- Will foreign ads simply be subject to disclosure regulation, or will the ads be rejected if from a foreign source even if federal law does not bar the ads (such as “Hillary is a Satan” if the Honest Ads Act does not apply, or LGBT ads if it does apply)?
- What if the material is from a media corporation that is a foreign entity, like The Guardian? (Suppose The Guardian editorializes “Don’t vote for Trump.”) if so, how will it decide who counts as the media?
Well a NYT story out of Virginia shows who bad Facebook’s disclosure rules really are:
A competitive race in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District has an alarming new element: anonymous attack ads on Facebook.
The ads, which appeared on a Facebook page called “Wacky Wexton Not,” were purchased by a critic of Jennifer Wexton, a Democrat trying to unseat Representative Barbara Comstock, a Republican. The race is one of the most closely watched in the country.
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….
But the owner of “Wacky Wexton Not” was able to remain anonymous by taking advantage of a loophole in Facebook’s policy. Once authorized to pay for political ads, buyers are able to fill the “paid for by” field with whatever text they want, even if it does not match the name of a Facebook user or page, and even if it is not an organization registered with the Federal Election Commission. Facebook does not reveal the identity of authorized ad buyers, or allow users to get more information about them.