How the GOP uses Facebook to scam Republican donors

In the closing weeks of the 2020 presidential election, the Trump campaign faced a cash crunch. To solve it, the campaign effectively resorted to defrauding its own supporters

Starting in September 2020, the campaign set many campaign donations to recur weekly by default. To avoid getting charged repeatedly, donors "had to wade through a fine-print disclaimer and manually uncheck a box to opt out." The result was stories like this:

The tactic ensnared scores of unsuspecting Trump loyalists — retirees, military veterans, nurses and even experienced political operatives…

“Bandits!” said Victor Amelino, a 78-year-old Californian, who made a $990 online donation to Mr. Trump in early September via WinRed. It recurred seven more times — adding up to almost $8,000. “I’m retired. I can’t afford to pay all that damn money.”

These tactics resulted in many Trump supporters filing fraud claims against the Trump campaign. According to an analysis by the New York Times, from June 15 to the end of 2020, 12.29% of Trump's online donors requested refunds. Over the same period of time, just 2.24% of Biden's online donors asked for their money back. 

The Republican Party, however, is continuing to deploy these deceptive tactics in 2021. And, as Colin Sholes first noted, they are using Facebook to do it. 

For example, the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), which works to get Republicans elected to the House of Representatives, is running several Facebook ads featuring Trump. This one declares: "Trump is Back."

If you click through the ad, you'll find a splash page with two pre-checked boxes. One pre-checked box will make any donation recur monthly. The other pre-checked box will charge your card an additional time on April 20. "UNCHECK this box if you've given up," the NRCC says. 

The GOP Facebook page is also running similar ads that link to a Facebook page with pre-checked boxes. According to Facebook's own metrics, these ads have reached millions of people over the last few days. 

These pre-checked boxes appear to violate Facebook's ad rules. Section 6 of Facebook's ad rules, which applies to "services that include… automatic renewal," states:

Display an empty check box in your landing page content that people must check in order to accept the terms and conditions. You must not display a check box that is checked by default.

Facebook, however, said that Section 6 does not apply to political ads that solicit donations. "Pre-checked boxes do not violate our policies for political fundraising," Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois told Popular Information, "We’re taking a close look at how this fundraising practice is used on our platform to ensure that we protect the people using our services."

Two messages from corporate America

On Tuesday, Popular Information reported on a Zoom call where a group of business leaders discussed potential future action opposing legislation to restrict voting. On Wednesday, that meeting resulted in an open letter, signed by hundreds of companies and CEOs — including Apple, Goldman Sachs, and Starbucks — in support of voting rights. 

But the letter itself was underwhelming. First, the language of the letter was quite broad. This is the most concrete section:

We all should feel a responsibility to defend the right to vote and to oppose any discriminatory legislation or measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot.

Voting is the lifeblood of our democracy and we call upon all Americans to join us in taking a nonpartisan stand for this most basic and fundamental right of all Americans.

Even that statement was too much for companies like Walmart and Home Depot, which were among the companies conspicuously absent from the list of signatories. But the larger problem, as Popular Information has reported, is that the Republican sponsors of voter suppression legislation will not acknowledge that their bills are "discriminatory." So legislators will simply waive away a vague statement like this as inapplicable. 

So will companies that signed this letter now speak out about specific legislation — like SB7 and HB6 in Texas — that will restrict voting in a discriminatory manner? Kenneth Chenault, the former CEO of American Express who helped organize the letter, said that was not the expectation:

The statement does not address specific election legislation in states, among them Texas, Arizona and Michigan, and Mr. Chenault said there was no expectation for companies to oppose individual bills.

“We are not being prescriptive,” he said. “There is no one answer.”

So the letter intentionally does not define what it is that these businesses support or oppose, which debilitates the effort. It also does not commit the corporations to any form of meaningful action. These corporations have collectively donated millions to the politicians pushing voter suppression legislation across the country. No company has committed to ending its support of politicians seeking to make it harder to vote. 

Nearly every signatory of the new letter supporting voting rights is also a member of the Chamber of Commerce. Shortly before the letter was published, the Chamber of Commerce issued a "key vote alert" urging Senators to oppose the For the People Act, also known as HR 1. 

The For the People Act would put into place fundamental reforms that would protect against the kind of voting restrictions passed in Georgia and Iowa, and being considered in Texas, Florida, Arizona, and elsewhere. Among other provisions, it would require automatic voter registration, guarantee the right to vote by mail, establish minimum standards for early voting, and prevent voter purges.

So on the one hand, many corporations have signed onto a generic statement support voting rights and opposing discriminatory voting restrictions. On the other hand, the most prominent lobbying organization representing these same corporations are pressuring Congress to reject legislation that could strengthen voting rights and protect against discriminatory voting restrictions.