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.
“Facebook and other social media platforms that allow political advertising must do more to provide transparency to Americans on the source of the content on their platforms,” U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat, told ProPublica.
Cortez Masto warned of this loophole before Facebook introduced its disclosure rules. In written questions to the company, she asked: “Would you let a mysterious group … run an ad on Facebook without any further information about who they are?” and “Will these transparency measures you are discussing tell you who paid the Facebook page to run the ad?”
Facebook told her that when users click on the disclosure, they would be able to see details about the advertiser. However, Facebook leaves it to the advertiser to decide whether to supply these details, and clicking on those disclosures for the 12 campaigns offers no new information. (Most of these ads were contributed by readers participating in ProPublica’s Political Ad Collector project.)
Like Cortez Masto, Richard Hasen wasn’t surprised. “It struck me when Facebook announced its rules that it was about to encounter a hornet’s nest,” said Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California’s Irvine campus and an expert on election law. “Right now, it does not seem like it’s a regime that’s set up to create effective disclosure.”
Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management, said Facebook doesn’t try to verify the provenance of every political ad. The lack of a “reliable source to look and see every possible entity name that would be valid, including ‘doing business as’ names,” would make it a herculean task, he said. “We have to rely on the things that we can scalably look at.” Facebook primarily monitors disclaimers for profanity, names of hate groups and “vague or inaccurate” descriptions, as well as URLs (banned because they’re not official names), he said.
“It’s pretty hard to prove a negative that something does not exist,” Leathern said. Facebook reviewed the ads identified by ProPublica, and they comply with the disclosure policy, he said.
Leathern said that the new policy has improved advertiser transparency overall, and ProPublica did find some examples of enhanced disclosure. For example, a “Hoosier Country” campaign supporting U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, an Indiana Democrat, and criticizing his Republican opponent, has added a disclaimer that it’s paid for by Priorities USA Action – a liberal superPAC – and SMP, the “Senate Majority Project,” which is associated with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Leathern also noted that Facebook’s disclosure policy applies to ads about political issues as well as candidates. By contrast, Google’s disclosure requirements only apply to ads about federal candidates or officeholders, according to its website. Issue-oriented ads on television also don’t require a disclaimer.
“We’re looking to do more than has been done in other media, we’re looking to take a leadership position here,” Leathern said. “This is not only an on-Facebook problem.”
Like Facebook, Twitter requires ads about political issues to carry a “paid for by” disclaimer. But unlike Facebook, under a policy that it began enforcing on Sept. 30, Twitter verifies advertisers’ names via their Employer Identification Numbers, making it harder for the actual sponsors to hide. For instance, ads from Energy In Depth carried a disclaimer on Twitter – but not on Facebook – that they were paid for by Independent Petroleum Association of America.
Energy in Depth’s ads on Facebook criticized lawsuits against oil and natural gas companies over climate change. Seth Whitehead, a team lead with Energy in Depth, said that it complies fully with Facebook’s rules and that the group’s website discloses its role as an IPAA program.
Including the Energy4US and Energy in Depth campaigns, seven of the 12 ads identified by ProPublica were linked to the energy industry. The American Petroleum Institute, a trade association that has spent more than $5 million this year on federal lobbying, accounted for three of them. Under Energy Citizens, a name that API began using in 2009 to organize an ostensible grassroots movement against limits on emissions linked to climate change, the institute spent $260,000 since this May on Facebook ads aimed at people interested in Donald Trump or Sean Hannity. The ads praised oil and gas production for protecting the environment and addressing climate change, supported the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and opposed a nuclear power plant “bailout” in Ohio. Under Energy Nation, API urged Facebook users to “Vote for energy. Vote for jobs.” Under Explore Offshore Coalition, it courted people interested in Trump with ads contending that offshore drilling benefits veterans and doesn’t affect tourism.
Facebook users would have to click through the links on these ads and scroll to the bottom of the websites of Energy Citizens and Explore Offshore Coalition to learn that they are actually linked to the petroleum group; the Energy Nation website’s header image includes a reference to API. “We are in compliance with Facebook’s advertising rules,” API spokeswoman Natalia Sharova said. (API has also run political ads under its own name since Facebook’s policy took effect.)
Of the five ad campaigns unrelated to energy, three trace back to insurance, real estate and technology companies. For instance, Trenton Don’t Touch My Insurance ran ads against a New Jersey bill that would have made it easier for individuals to sue insurance companies. The logo of the Insurance Council of New Jersey appears at the bottom of Don’t Touch My Insurance’s website.
“The insurance industry is behind the campaign,” Christine O’Brien, president of the Insurance Council of New Jersey, said. “We’re not hiding that the industry is educating the public through this campaign. I don’t know why there wouldn’t be a disclaimer on it.”
She said the failure to include “Paid for by Insurance Council of New Jersey” on the Facebook ads was unintentional, adding, “We stand behind it.” Other ads related to the campaign that ran on platforms besides Facebook did say they were paid for by the Insurance Council of New Jersey.
The businesses or individuals behind the other two campaigns – one by the Long Island Coalition for Healthy Lawn and Water opposing a proposed New York state ban on certain fertilizers, and one by Americans for Fair Courtrooms against bail reform in California – could not be traced. The groups didn’t respond to requests for comment via Facebook Messenger, and Facebook declined to say who was behind these ads.
“We have no reason to believe that these disclaimers are violating our policies,” Facebook spokeswoman Devon Kearns said. “There is no way to be absolutely sure.”
Other media outlets have also identified Facebook political ads that were less than transparent. The New York Times reported in October on ads in a Virginia congressional race that identified the funder only as “A freedom loving American Citizen exercising my natural law right, protected by the 1st Amendment and protected by the 2nd Amendment.” CNN found ads on Facebook from “Memes that are right” and “Crush Cruz” groups, without further identifying the sponsors.
Kearns told ProPublica that these disclaimers violated Facebook’s rules.
Facebook users can’t judge the validity of a political message without knowing who’s behind it, said Ann Ravel, a former Democratic member of the Federal Election Commission. “Often groups with neutral-sounding names will send advertisements … to try to influence people and you don’t know that they’re self-interested in that a particular policy,” she said. “Those people have a self-interest” in the policies their ads are pushing, referring to the trade groups. Or, as Facebook put it in a training manual for advertisers, “Knowing who paid for an ad with political content is crucial to properly understand and evaluate it.”
In response to ProPublica’s questions, two advertisers promised more disclosure. Connect Americans Now, which pushes for improved access to high-speed internet in rural areas, is a “Microsoft-supported community,” Zachary Cikanek, a Connect Americans Now spokesman, said. “In future ads we are going to go beyond what is required” and identify Microsoft’s role.
We Stand For Energy ran ads seeking to limit refunds that South Carolinians with solar panels receive on electric bills for excess power that they generate, and supporting wind energy in South Dakota and electric vehicle charging stations in Washington, D.C. It’s actually a campaign of the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group of electrical utilities. “We have always been transparent that EEI sponsors We Stand for Energy, and we are currently in the process of updating all the Facebook ads,” said EEI spokesman Jeff Ostermayer. As of Oct. 25, its new ads said “Paid for by Edison Electric Institute.” He described “We Stand For Energy” as a “grassroots platform that unites and educates customers and key community stakeholders.”
Energy interests, including EEI, have a decades-long history of cloaking sponsorship to promote their interests, environmental researchers and activists say. Energy companies “were raising their offshore drilling platforms to account for larger storms and higher seas due to climate change while funding front groups to undermine climate science,” said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity. “And those groups were just very similar to these Facebook operations, designed to look credible, designed to look independent. They’re after any additional bit of credibility that they can conjure up. You’re trying to get every little psychological edge in this game.”
Wiles cited leaked documents from a proposed 1991 ad campaign sponsored in part by EEI. To avoid “lower overall credibility ratings” garnered by industry sources, the campaign would have created a group called “Information Council on the Environment” or “Informed Citizens for the Environment” to express skepticism about global warming. The messaging was tested in a few media markets and received critical press coverage, according to the documents. EEI did not respond to questions about this campaign.
Similarly, when the American Petroleum Institute sought in 1998 to cast doubt on climate change and stop the U.S. Senate from ratifying an international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, one tactic it considered in a “roadmap” memo was to establish a nonprofit organization called the “Global Climate Science Data Center.” The nonprofit’s goal would be “raising questions about and undercutting the ‘prevailing scientific wisdom,’” according to the memo. At the time, an API spokesman told The New York Times that the plan was “very, very tentative.”
In response to questions about this history, API said it is “often joined by individuals and organizations who share our vision of American energy leadership.”
Several years ago, the “California Drivers Alliance” and “Fed Up at the Pump” – stand-ins for, respectively, the Western States Petroleum Association and the California Independent Oil Marketers Association, now rebranded the California Fuels & Convenience Alliance – ran ads on Facebook and elsewhere in an attempt to stop the scheduled implementation of climate regulations in California.
Kara Siepmann, a WSPA spokeswoman, confirmed that it was behind the California Drivers Alliance campaign. WSPA is now running ads on Facebook under the name “Californians for Cost Containment,” warning that climate change restrictions could lead to higher fuel prices.
“We agree that there needs to be transparency,” Siepmann said. WSPA is “examining the updates the social platforms are making and ensuring that WSPA is remaining transparent around the communications campaigns that it’s running.” CFCA did not return requests for comment.
Kathy Mulvey, who directs the Climate Accountability Campaign of the Union of Concerned Scientists and reviewed several of the energy industry ads identified by ProPublica, said that the masking of sponsorship on Facebook is “eerily similar” to earlier tactics. “The new Facebook transparency measures clearly don’t cut it for anyone who wants to know the real interests behind an ad,” she said. “There are loopholes big enough for front groups … to drive a truck through.”
Here are the examples found by ProPublica where Facebook has allowed advertisers to say their ads are “paid for by” a legally nonexistent group.
- Energy Citizens, Energy Nation and Explore Offshore Coalition, actually programs of the American Petroleum Institute. “We are in compliance with Facebook’s advertising rules,” API spokeswoman Natalia Sharova said.
- We Stand For Energy, actually a program of the Edison Electric Institute. EEI spokesman Jeff Ostermayer said, “We have always been transparent that EEI sponsors We Stand For Energy, and we are currently in the process of updating all the Facebook ads to reflect that EEI is sponsoring the ads.”
- Energy In Depth, actually a program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Seth Whitehead, a team lead with Energy in Depth, said, “Our role as an IPAA program is disclosed on every page of our website and in all our interactions with the media and other third parties. EID’s Facebook profile also clearly notes the program’s affiliation with IPAA. Occasionally, EID will run ads on Facebook, which is done in full compliance with Facebook’s advertising requirements.”
- Energy4US, linked to American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers. AFPM did not return requests for comment.
- Long Island Coalition for Healthy Lawn and Water, actual advertiser unknown. Did not respond to a request for comment via Facebook Messenger.
- Don’t Touch My Insurance is “just a name of a campaign” managed by the Insurance Council of New Jersey, said ICNJ president Christine O’Brien.
- Americans for Fair Courtrooms, actual advertiser unknown. Did not respond to a request for comment via Facebook messenger.
- Texans for Natural Gas is a “is a digital advocacy campaign,” said a spokesman, Steve Everley, “As clearly disclosed on our home page, Texans for Natural Gas receives support from three natural gas producers,” EnerVest, EOG Resources and XTO Energy. XTO Energy is a subsidiary of ExxonMobil.
- Connect Americans Now is a “Microsoft-supported community.” Connect Americans Now spokesman Zachary Cikanek said.
- Greenlight the Gulch, an ad campaign promoting tax benefits for a proposed real estate development in downtown Atlanta, is linked to CIM Group, the project’s developer. Spokesman Bill Mendel said that “all advertising for Greenlight the Gulch – including on social media and in print – directs people to the campaign’s website, which clearly states CIM’s developer role.”