The online effort, which aimed to steer Facebook users to a website raising unfounded concerns about mail balloting, was promoted extensively by FreedomWorks, the tax-exempt nonprofit that helped launch tea-party protests a decade ago and is now aligned with causes central to President Trump’s reelection. The messaging was in line with misinformation spread by Trump and his reelection campaign about the integrity of mail-in voting.
The Facebook advertising account associated with the ad campaign belongs to Ken Anthony Moody, according to a person familiar with the campaign’s origins, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal information that was not publicly disclosed. Moody is a Florida-based digital consultant whose cover photo on Facebook is a shot of him in the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
Reached by phone on Saturday, Moody, who runs the digital agency K Moody & Associates, said, “We don’t comment on our clients," before hanging up.
A spokesman for FreedomWorks did not respond to a request for comment on Facebook’s action against the page Friday, or on the ad campaign’s apparent connection to Moody. The spokesman, Peter Vicenzi, said Thursday that a “partner group” was responsible for setting up the page and placing the ads, though he declined to provide details about the group or explain why FreedomWorks was the lone organization to promote it. He said FreedomWorks had shared the content because, “Election security is one of our issues.”
The Facebook page in question, Protect My Vote, had purchased more than 150 ads on the platform by the time it was removed. Viewed hundreds of thousands of times in August, the ads appeared to be designed to tap into anxiety about the integrity of the voting system to convince Americans in battleground states where minority turnout could be decisive that mail balloting is not reliable.
The paid posts featuring an image of James misconstrued a quote from the basketball star, falsely suggesting that when he condemned polling closures as “systemic racism and oppression,” he was linking those closures to the expansion of opportunities to vote by mail. A longtime adviser to James, Adam Mendelsohn, called the ads “shameless” and “reprehensible,” telling The Post that lawyers were examining the matter.
James also weighed in Friday, saying the online spread of misinformation about voting was equivalent to suppression, which he is seeking to combat through a new voting-rights initiative, More Than a Vote.
The now-deleted Facebook page disclosed only that it was owned by Protect My Vote. It did not provide a specific address but listed its location as Alexandria, Va. A corporation with the same name was registered in Delaware on July 10, according to online business records. Messages sent Thursday and Friday to an email address listed on the page yielded no response. Facebook declined to offer additional details about the owner of the page.
A website associated with the page, protectmyvote.com, warns baselessly that mail balloting results in “lost votes and lost rights.” It attacks the U.S. Postal Service, saying the institution is “Steadily Getting Worse,” and argues, “Rushing to fundamentally transform voting processes just a few months before a critical election puts your vote at risk.”
A Washington Post analysis in June of data collected from five elections in three states that proactively mail ballots to voters found minuscule rates of potential fraud.
Google, where ads from protectmyvote.com have also run this month, was still reviewing the ads on Saturday, said a company spokeswoman, Charlotte Smith.
FreedomWorks is the sole group to have consistently promoted Protect My Vote’s website since the domain was updated in July, according to data from CrowdTangle, a social media analysis tool. The FreedomWorks page on Facebook has shared links to the site in at least five organic posts in the past two weeks. FreedomWorks tweeted a link to the site five days in a row in early August. It also purchased a Facebook ad promoting the site earlier in the month, spending as much as $1,500 and gaining as many as 500,000 impressions.
The tactics used by Protect My Vote, and boosted by FreedomWorks, are at odds with Facebook’s pledge to crack down on election-related misinformation. The influence campaign showed how domestic actors, using shell corporations and pared-down websites, manipulate the platform to spread disinformation.
The deceptive operation, disinformation analysts said, raised doubts about the effectiveness of Facebook’s efforts to safeguard its platform from election-related manipulation.
“This is the right move from Facebook and also a drop in the ocean," said Jiore Craig, vice president of GQR, a research firm advising Democratic campaigns on disinformation. "I look forward to Facebook actioning any and all voter suppression content on their platform so they don’t assist bad actors trying to suppress the vote as they have in the past.”
Amid an ongoing debate about how to police online falsehoods, the company has taken a particularly hard line against voter suppression, banning some content designed to confuse voters, such as posts and ads that point to the wrong date for an election. Just in the past week, Facebook rolled out its Voting Information Center, an online hub for authoritative voting information, with plans to surface the feature in discussions of voting and deploy it to help users understand the counting of votes on Election Day and thereafter.