The website, called Protect My Vote, warns baselessly that mail balloting results in “lost votes and lost rights.” An associated page on Facebook has purchased more than 150 ads, which have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times this month. They appear designed to tap existing anxiety about the integrity of the voting system to convince voters in swing states where minority turnout could be decisive that mail balloting is not reliable amid an uncontained pandemic leading many Americans to consider alternative ways to be heard on Election Day.
Some of the paid posts feature an image of LeBron James and misconstrue 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. He was not.
A longtime adviser to James, Adam Mendelsohn, called the ads “shameless” and “reprehensible,” saying lawyers were examining the matter. He said the misinformation made all the more pressing the efforts by James and other Black athletes and entertainers to protect the voting rights of Black Americans, through a new effort, More Than a Vote.
Peter Vicenzi, communications director for FreedomWorks, said a “partner group” was responsible for setting up the website and placing the ads, though he declined to provide details about the group. He said FreedomWorks is sharing the content because, “Election security is one of our issues,” and did not respond to additional questions about the ad campaign beyond saying of the material about James, “That’s not our ad.”
The effort, launched in early July and intensified this month, echoes baseless claims by Trump that mail-in voting is vulnerable to widespread fraud. Democrats meeting in their virtual convention this week have repeatedly urged their supporters to vote early and in massive numbers to combat efforts by Trump and his allies to limit voting opportunities, in part by using false claims to undermine the credibility of mail ballots, which many states have made more readily available in response to concerns about voting in person during the pandemic.
“This type of voter suppression is one of the most dangerous disinformation tactics we monitor on social media,” said Jiore Craig, vice president of GQR, a research firm advising Democratic campaigns on disinformation. “The fact this group is taking statements about genuine voter suppression from people like LeBron James and twisting them to lure people to actual voter suppression messages and misinformation is a testament to how far they will go to keep people from turning out in this election.”
The online tactics used by “Protect My Vote,” and boosted by FreedomWorks, fly in the face of Facebook’s pledge to crack down on election-related misinformation. The influence campaign shows how domestic actors, using shell corporations and pared-down websites, can easily manipulate the platform to spread disinformation, with the technology giant reaping the rewards in the form of ad revenue.
Four years ago, Russian influence operations on Facebook sought not simply to denigrate Democrats but also to dissuade voters likely to support the party, especially Black voters, from participating in the electoral process, according to Senate investigators. The playbook remains similar in 2020, this operation demonstrates.
A Facebook spokeswoman, Devon Kearns, said the company was looking into the ads purchased on its platform.
The campaign promoted by FreedomWorks, which pushes right-wing talking points about voter fraud as election officials race to reassure Americans about the integrity of the November contest, is targeted in particular at older users in Arizona, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, according to data from Facebook’s ad archive. These are increasingly competitive states where minority voters could tip the balance toward Democrats.
FreedomWorks is the sole group to have consistently promoted the website since the domain was updated last month, according to CrowdTangle data. 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 this month, spending as much as $1,500, and gaining as many as 500,000 impressions.
FreedomWorks, which has roots in the network backed by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch and like-minded donors, used its online arsenal this spring to coordinate protests against stay-at-home orders designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The chairman of its Task Force on Economic Revival, Stephen Moore, also advised Trump on plans to reopen the economy. Moore, in a text message, said he had no opinion on the issue of mail ballots. “Not my area of expertise,” he said.
Now, FreedomWorks is taking advantage of Facebook’s narrow targeting technologies to deliver false and misleading claims about mail-in voting, in line with misinformation spread by the president.
“Think mail-in voting is problem-free? Think again,” FreedomWorks warned in an Aug. 7 Facebook post, directing users to the website, which discloses no information about who is behind the effort. Meanwhile, the website claims to present evidence showing that rampant fraud and widespread disenfranchisement result from mail balloting, which is not borne out by facts.
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.
Still, false and misleading claims about the practice persist, amplified by Trump and some of his Republican allies. The Protect My Vote campaign shows how online outfits are at work creating the appearance of evidence for assertions of rampant fraud, and then delivering the trumped-up claims straight to the Facebook feeds of unsuspecting users.
“IT’S HAPPENING & THE ISSUES ARE REAL,” the Protect My Vote website warns in all capital letters. The website 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 Facebook page associated with the website — and the home for the misleading ads — was created on July 6. Called simply Protect My Vote, the page discloses only that it is owned by Protect My Vote Inc. It does not provide a specific address but lists its location as Alexandria, Va. A corporation with the same name was registered in Delaware on July 10, according to online business records.
The page has spent nearly $5,000 this month on ads, many of them targeting particular battleground states, according to Facebook’s ad archive. The paid posts have been viewed more than 400,000 times, based on a tally of public Facebook data.
The unfolding of the influence campaign raises doubts about the effectiveness of Facebook’s efforts to safeguard its platform from Russian-style disinformation, analysts said.
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. The Silicon Valley giant has applied labels to misleading claims about voting posted by politicians, including by Trump, and has recently expanded the practice to posts about voting in general, directing users to additional information and resources.
Just last 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. But the feature appears only if users click on a disclaimer when the ads appear on their screen.
“It’s great to have a portal through which voters can obtain accurate voting information, but it doesn’t do much when what Facebook users are consulting and being shown on the platform is false information from other sources,” said Cindy Otis, a former CIA analyst and now vice president of analysis for Alethea Group, an organization combating disinformation.
An earlier version of the protectmyvote.com website was sponsored by a right-wing watchdog group based in Minnesota. Run by Dan McGrath, the project advocated for voter ID measures and other policies it deemed “common-sense election reforms.” McGrath did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
Originally registered in 2012, his website was down by 2017. The domain went up for sale. A new version went live this year, though registration records do not reveal its owner. A message sent to an email address listed on the Protect My Vote Facebook page yielded no response.
The title Protect My Vote has been enlisted in numerous advocacy campaigns in recent years, though none bears clear ties to the current iteration of protectmyvote.com, which has been publicly boosted only by FreedomWorks.
In 2018, a group called Protect My Vote formed in Michigan to oppose the creation of an independent redistricting commission. The group received millions of dollars from the Michigan Freedom Fund, an organization with ties to the family of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, according to financial disclosures. Another outfit opposing the redistricting commission, Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, received $50,000 from Fair Lines America, a conservative dark money group based in Alexandria, Va. A spokesman for the Michigan Freedom Fund, Greg McNeilly, said the group was not involved in the new effort promoted by FreedomWorks. A message to Fair Lines America was not returned.
Now, thousands of Facebook users in battleground states are seeing the rallying cry Protect My Vote appear in their feeds. Advised that their right to vote could be at risk, users who click are flooded with dramatic warnings that could shake faith in American democracy.