A Facebook ad in October urged political conservatives to support the Trump administration’s rollback of fuel emission standards, which it hailed as “our president’s car freedom agenda” and “plan for safer, cheaper cars that WE get to choose.” The ad came from a Facebook page called Energy4US, and it included a disclaimer, required by Facebook, saying it was “paid for by Energy4US.”
Yet there is no such company or organization as Energy4US, nor is it any entity’s registered trade name, according to a search of LexisNexis and other databases. Instead, Energy4US — which Facebook says spent nearly $20,000 on the ads — appears to be a front for American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, a trade association whose members include ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and Shell. In 2015, when the Energy4US website was launched, it was registered to AFPM, which is also first on a list of “coalition members” on the site. AFPM, which did not respond to calls and emails for this article, has spent more than $2.5 million this year lobbying the federal government, including advocating for less stringent emission standards.
Although Facebook now requires every political ad to “accurately represent the name of the entity or person responsible,” the social media giant acknowledges that it didn’t check whether Energy4US is actually responsible for the ad. Nor did it question 11 other ad campaigns identified by ProPublica in which U.S. businesses or individuals masked their sponsorship through faux groups with public-spirited names. Some of these campaigns resembled a digital form of what is known as “astroturfing,” or hiding behind the mirage of a spontaneous grassroots movement. In most cases, Facebook users would have to click on the ad and scrutinize the affiliated website to find any reference to the actual sponsor.
The 12 ad campaigns, for which Facebook received a total of more than $800,000, expose a significant gap in enforcement of its new disclosure policy, and they cast doubt on Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s assurance to the U.S. Senate in September that “you can see who paid for” ads. Adopted this past May in the wake of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, Facebook’s rules are designed to hinder foreign meddling in elections by verifying that individuals who run ads on its platform have a U.S. mailing address, governmental ID and a Social Security number. But, once this requirement has been met, Facebook doesn’t check whether the advertiser identified in the “paid for by” disclosure has any legal status, enabling U.S. businesses to promote their political agendas secretly.