This story was co-published with VICE News.
A Facebook page for a group called “America Progress Now” is running ads online urging progressives to vote for Green Party candidates in seven competitive races in the Midwest.
“People of Color NEED Marcia Squier in the Senate to represent them,” one of the ads says, promoting a Green Party candidate in Michigan. “Americans don’t have control over our government anymore. We’ve lost it to greedy, corporate capitalists,” says another, calling for voters to support Ohio Green Party candidate Joe Manchik.
The page features ads with images of prominent progressive politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Problem is, America Progress Now hasn’t registered with the Federal Election Commission, as all groups making independent political expenditures are required to do. Six of the Green Party candidates being promoted by America Progress Now say they have no affiliation with the Facebook page, and most say they’ve never heard of the group.
And there’s no sign of America Progress Now at the address listed on its Facebook page. When we visited 605 E. 132nd St. in the Bronx on Monday morning, none of the tenants we spoke to had ever heard of America Progress Now. The building’s landlord, Stephen Rosenfeld, said in a phone call that he hadn’t heard of the group either and that no tenants by that name were in his building. After reaching out to America Progress Now, the page removed its Bronx address.
The ads caught the attention of Sanders’ Senate office, which asked Facebook to take the ads down, but so far the company has refused to do so. Two of the ads mention Sanders and one insinuates that he supports voting for third-party candidates. “Bernie Sanders is leading the way,” the ad states. “It’s time to send him some allies in Washington. This November, don’t vote for a party, vote for Progressive values.”
“We asked Facebook to remove the ad last week because it is clearly a malicious attempt to deceive voters,” Sanders spokesman Josh Miller-Lewis said in a statement. “It is deeply troubling that after Facebook was used in similar ways by foreign actors in 2016 to swing the election, the company still refuses to act to combat deceptive and misleading ads run by anonymous organizations.”
In an email to a Sanders staff member that was shared with VICE News and ProPublica, Facebook said it had investigated America Progress Now and found no violations of its policies. Facebook said it had verified that American Process Now is authorized to run ads with “America Progress Now” in its “Paid For by” disclosure.
The group’s meme-like ads use publicly available pictures of the candidates, quotes and a rose motif reminiscent of that used by some socialist groups. One of the featured candidates, Randall Auxier, a Green Party candidate running for Congress in Illinois’ 12th district, said, “I did not say or write the text that is with my picture, although I do agree with the content, for the most part.”
Squier left a complaint about the ads on America Progress Now’s Facebook page. “Cease and desist NOW!” she wrote. “This site is NOT authorized to make up quotes I never said or run ads on my behalf.”
The ads, some placed on the eve of the midterms, appear intended to take away Democratic votes in key races.
“This clearly looks like an attempt to convince members of the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party to vote Green, thus benefiting Republicans,” said Daniel Kreiss, an associate professor in the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies political communication. “During the 2016 election, folks on the right, shady groups were pushing Green Party votes as well.”
In a statement to VICE News and ProPublica, Facebook said it reviewed the ads, requested additional information from the advertiser and determined they do not violate its community standards or advertising policies. Facebook said the company received either an Employer Identification Number or an FEC committee ID from America Progress Now. It’s also possible that an individual bought the ads and that America Progress Now is not a political group, but an individual would still have to register with the FEC.
On the morning of Nov. 5, several of the ads said that they had been “taken down because it goes against Facebook’s advertising policies.” Later in the morning, the ads had all been restored.
America Progress Now did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but Facebook’s Messenger app indicated the page “read” the requests.
The page has spent at least $1,000 so far on the ads, which were still running Monday and have been viewed at least 108,000 times, according to Facebook’s ad archive. It’s a drop in the bucket in Facebook terms: Since May, advertisers have spent more than $353 million on political ads on Facebook. Yet the ads show how political groups and individuals are still using Facebook’s ad system to target voters anonymously.
There is no record of a group registered with the Federal Election Commission by the name America Progress Now; groups making online independent expenditures that urge readers to “vote for” a candidate incur legal requirements to register with the FEC. Nor does a group with the name America Progress Now exist in the corporate filings databases of LexisNexis, Washington, D.C., Delaware or other databases.
In May, Facebook instituted new political ad rules in response to Russian meddling: first, it verifies that the person placing ads has a Social Security number and a U.S. residential mailing address, then it requires the advertiser to add a “Paid for by” disclaimer that “accurately represent[s] the name of the entity or person responsible” for the ad.
However, Facebook last week acknowledged to ProPublica that it can’t “scalably” verify that the “Paid for by” disclaimers are accurate, all after VICE News was approved to run ads that said, falsely, that they had been “Paid for by Mike Pence” and all 100 U.S. senators.
At least one of America Progress Now’s ads was targeted to people whom Facebook categorizes as “very liberal,” according to one ad submitted by a participant in ProPublica’s Political Ad Collector project.
Several of the races targeted by the page — the Missouri Senate race, Ohio’s 12th Congressional District and Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District — are highly competitive and are rated as “toss-ups” by the Cook Political Report. Two others are “leans” and two, the Michigan Senate race and Pennsylvania governor’s race, are considered “likely” Democratic victories by the Cook Political Report. The logic of these choices is unclear: While there is a Green Party candidate in New Jersey’s “toss-up”-rated Senate race, America Progress Now hasn’t run ads about the candidate there.
“It has the potential to make a difference in close races,” Kreiss said, but he doubts it’ll be effective this year, where so much of the midterm election dialogue has focused on President Donald Trump. “You will see Democrats and progressives having party unity.”