Over the last two weeks, Facebook has repeatedly allowed a top Republican Super PAC, American Crossroads, to run dishonest attacks against Democratic Senate candidate Raphael Warnock — in violation of Facebook's own misinformation rules. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Georgians have been exposed to misinformation about Warnock on Facebook in the critical days leading up to the January 5 run-off election.
Internal Facebook communications concerning the American Crossroads ads, obtained by Popular Information, reveal dysfunction and confusion about Facebook's advertising policies, even among executives purportedly in charge of such matters.
Beginning on Election Day, November 3, Facebook banned all political ads on the platform. But it partially lifted the ban on December 16 to allow ads about the Georgia runoffs targeting Facebook users in Georgia. The announcement said that Facebook would activate its "Elections Operations Center" to ".fight...misinformation" about the Georgia runoffs in "real time."
On December 17, American Crossroads, a Republican Super PAC run by Karl Rove and funded by Mitch McConnell's political operation, began running an ad with a short snippet of Warnock saying, "God damn America." The ad presents Warnock's statement as an expression of his own views, saying his comments represented "anti-American hate." This is blatantly dishonest.
The clip was from a speech that Warnock delivered on July 11, 2013, at the Chautauqua Institution. It is clear that Warnock is not expressing his own views but quoting Wright. "Extracted from its theological and rhetorical context and looped to the point of ad nauseam was the most provocative phrase 'God Damn America,'" Warnock said.
The day after Popular Information revealed this deception, the ad was evaluated by Lead Stories, one of Facebook's fact-checking partners. Lead Stories debunked the ad:
Does a political ad showing Georgia Senate candidate Raphael Warnock saying "God damn America" present the video in context? No, it does not: When Rev. Warnock uttered the controversial phrase, he was discussing the use of those words in a famous sermon by Rev. Jeremiah Wright. By taking Warnock's quote out of context, the ad implied he was communicating his own sentiment, which he was not.
Lead Stories' rating resulted in the American Crossroads ad being taken down from Facebook. While Facebook allows political candidates and parties to run false ads, the exception does not apply to Super PACs.
That should have been the end of the story. It was not.
Lather, rinse, repeat
On December 20, a couple of days after Facebook removed the American Crossroads ad because it violated the company's misinformation policies, American Crossroads republished the exact same ad. And Facebook allowed it to run.
American Crossroads quickly spent $8,000 to promote this ad reaching, according to Facebook's own data, as many as 250,000 Georgians.
Popular Information contacted Facebook and asked why this ad was allowed to be reposted. Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesperson, responded on Twitter that the ad was taken down. He offered no other explanation.
Popular Information contacted Stone over email and asked the following question: "Is there anything preventing American Crossroads from reposting the same ad and reaching more people with it before it's taken down again?"
Facebook did not respond.
On December 22, American Crossroads published a new version of the ad. The graphics were tweaked — this ad contained an image instead of a video — but the substance was identical.
That ad remained up for days.
Inside Facebook's response
Popular Information's reporting was also raising questions inside of Facebook. On December 24, Facebook executive Rob Leathern flagged the issue on Workplace, Facebook's internal communication system. Leathern noted that the ad had been removed previously and asked Stone and others whether Facebook should take down the ad. He also asked whether Facebook should take action against "the ad account/business for attempting to circumvent our ads policies by repeatedly posting the same content?"
Rob Leathern - Dec 24 at 11:09
Flagging here since I know many folks are out right now - obviously we do not approve ads (we disapprove ads that violate our policies), but this was highlighted by Judd Legum and he mentioned ads with these claims previously being taken down, and then the same claim being repeated. A few questions: 1) should we action this ad? 2) should we action the ad account/business for attempting to circumvent our ads policies by repeatedly posting the same content? cc Andy, Michael, Allison, Nell, James, Devon
The fact that Leathern didn't know the answers to these questions is strange. Leathern
"led the product team for Business Integrity at Facebook" and was responsible for "enforc[ing] ads and business policies across Facebook." (Leathern left Facebook at the end of the year to pursue other opportunities.)
Stone responded that he had already looked into the issue and would follow up with Leathern. The following day, on December 25, the ad was removed. But the problems continued.
Facebook's broken system
While the American Crossroads ad was removed on December 25, it does not appear any action was taken against American Crossroads more broadly, as Leathern suggested. On December 29, American Crossroads published several versions of the ad. Some had new graphics, and others were identical to those that had been previously removed.
American Crossroads was able to spend thousands of dollars to promote these ads — reaching hundreds of thousands of Georgians — before they were removed on December 31.
But that wasn't the end. American Crossroads published the ads attacking Warnock again on January 2. This time, it simply reposted the video it originally published on December 17. Those ads were removed several hours later. On January 3, American Crossroads republished three new versions of the ad.
How was American Crossroads able to get away with this? Internal Facebook communications obtained by Popular Information suggest one reason. In response to concerns by Facebook employees, a member of Facebook's business integrity unit revealed that "even the slightest modification" to an ad would evade automatic detection.
> (name redacted)
> Looks like the exact same ad has been resubmitted and approved multiple times. SO it seems it's not a policy issue but rather enforcement. (name redacted) do we not do a dupe check for previous enforcements?
> > (name redacted)
> > (name redacted) who owns misinfo in ads would be able to further debug what's happening here. You are correct, per my understanding, that debunked content that has an identical match should be subject to enforcement. However, even the slightest modification could make these non-exact matches and could evade our matching/fan out logic. Cc (name redacted) as well
So Facebook's automated system is not able to handle American Crossroads' blatant circumvention of the rules. Yet, the company still will not backstop this system with human moderators that could easily identify American Crossroads' duplicative ads.
The larger question, however, is why American Crossroads was still given unfettered access to Facebook's ad system after repeatedly violating the rules.
In response to an inquiry from Popular Information, Facebook declined to address this issue. "Based on the rating from one of Facebook's third-party fact-checking partners, we removed these ads from our platform," the company said.
Senator blasts Facebook's conduct
In a statement to Popular Information, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) blasted Facebook's handling of the American Crossroads ads. "Contrary to the claims of Donald Trump and Republicans, Facebook isn’t biased against conservatives. In fact, Facebook is throwing out its own rule book to avoid shutting down Republican lies," Wyden said.
Wyden added that some Republican proposals to revise Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act could make the situation worse. Legislation proposed by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) and others could force social networks to run all political ads even if the content is demonstrably false or defamatory. Existing law that applies to broadcast television forces Georgia stations to run the American Crossroads ad.
The right's Facebook protector
We do not know why Facebook did not take action against American Crossroads after repeated violations. But we do know that Facebook has powerful executives that have repeatedly taken action to protect right-wing groups.
The most prominent advocate for the right within Facebook is Joel Kaplan, the Republican operative who is now in charge of Facebook's global public policy. Yaël Eisenstat, Facebook's former election ads integrity lead, told BuzzFeed News that Kaplan and his team "attempted to influence ad enforcement decisions being" on behalf of a conservative organization. There was also an effort to prevent PragerU, a prominent right-wing publisher, "from being given Repeat Offender status" for repeatedly publishing misinformation, "a designation that would have limited its reach and advertising privileges."
The Wall Street Journal reported that Kaplan opposed changes to improve the quality of the Facebook Newsfeed because "some proposed changes would have disproportionately affected conservative users and publishers."
On December 24, Kaplan donated the legal maximum, $2800, to Warnock's opponent, Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA).
Loeffler fills in the gaps
American Crossroads is subject to fact-checking on Facebook. But political candidates like Loeffler are not. So beginning on December 22, four days after the American Crossroads ads were initially removed, Loeffler began running a nearly identical ad on Facebook with the same false attack on Warnock.
Loeffler has spent over $30,000 promoting the ads on Facebook.