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Weeks ahead of the presidential election, two prominent political action committees are firing false and misleading advertisements at Wisconsinites on Facebook, including messages that independent fact-checkers have already debunked, according to a new analysis.
And Facebook’s policies are failing to stop the flow of misinformation, according to research provided to Wisconsin Watch by Avaaz, a global nonprofit that advocates on a range of issues, including corruption, poverty and climate change.
Explore: More voting coverage in our Narrow Margin series.
Researchers monitored Facebook advertising — and spending — by super PACs supporting President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden in recent months. They found that two high-spending groups were routinely spreading information that third-party fact-checkers and reputable news sources had already debunked: America First Action, which supports Trump, and Stop Republicans, which supports Biden.
Super PACs are political action committees that may raise and spend unlimited sums of money to independently advocate for candidates for federal office. The two committees researchers scrutinized spent thousands of dollars on Facebook ads targeting voters in Wisconsin and other battleground states, according to Avaaz’s analysis of advertising activity in the Facebook Ad Library.
“We were just trying to see what kinds of adverts were being shared by these super PACs across the spectrum, and whether we could find any that actually contained false and misleading information,” said Sarah Morrison, a senior campaigner at Avaaz, adding that her group is increasingly focused on “trying to protect democracies from the dangers of misinformation.”
America First Action targeted four states — Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — with all 451 of its ads analyzed by Avaaz. The super PAC spent more than $24,900 in one month on at least 328 ads targeting Wisconsin voters, many of which proved misleading. The Wisconsin ads earned more than 2.3 million impressions, a metric for how often content appears in social media feeds.
For example, the super PAC ran ads containing the debunked claim that “Joe Biden’s trade deals with China cost Wisconsin nearly 89,000 jobs, and his vote for NAFTA cost the state even more.”
A separate ad included a selectively edited video suggesting that Biden will raise taxes on everyone — a repeatedly debunked claim. Facebook removed that ad for violating its policies, but it did not remove a similar ad stating that “with Joe Biden, 82% of Americans will see a tax increase.”
Kelly Sadler, communications director of America First Action, defended the debunked ads.
“All of the statements made in our ads are true, fully sourced, and have been verified by multiple impartial legal teams at television stations across the country,” Sadler said in an email. “No amount of online complaining by Democrats cosplaying as bloggers can change Biden’s plans, repeatedly touted during his campaign, which would crush our economic recovery.”
On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Stop Republicans PAC spread the same misleading claim in several ads: That the Postal Service would vanish by the end of the year without emergency funds from Congress. Fact-checkers deemed similar claims misleading before the ads started running on July 30.
Stop Republicans circulated its ads nationally, without targeting specific states. None were removed as of Sept. 30, according to Avaaz. The group did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s very clear that the policies that Facebook has aren’t being implemented and aren’t working,” Morrison said. “Facebook says that any ads that have debunked misinformation should be removed, and also that any repeat offenders — people who are repeatedly sharing misinformation and adverts — should have their ability to advertise restricted. What we found is that these policies aren’t being implemented.”
Avaaz said it submitted its findings to Facebook, which later removed 162 of the ads in question. But the platform left hundreds of others in circulation. Some contain small variations of previously debunked claims. Others are exact copies of banned advertisements.
“Even when Facebook removes ads for violating their policies, identical ads are being run days later, and very similar ads that might have a slight tweak — but still includes the false or misleading claim — are also being able to run,” Morrison said.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
Laura Edelson, a researcher with New York University who studies online political communication, said Avaaz is “quite correct” in concluding that Facebook’s ad policy falls short in halting misinformation.
“Facebook has a really strict policy in terms of what they will take down. They won’t take down false claims from politicians,” said Edelson, who helped launch the NYU Ad Observatory, a research tool for tracking political advertising. “Even for non-elected officials, Facebook will only pull down content if that specific — like that exact link — has been fact-checked and deemed to be false. That is a very narrow policy.”
Voters hoping to escape the misleading advertising blitz can turn off political ads on Facebook or leave the platform, Edelson said.
“There is a systemic problem. This is hard to fix, and the only people who can fix it right now are (with) Facebook,” she said. “My advice would be to step away from Facebook during the election.”
Howard Hardee is a Madison-based journalist who created a misinformation toolkit for consumers funded by the Craig Newmark Philanthropies. He is a fellow at First Draft, an organization that trains journalists to detect and report on disinformation. Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.