Facebook said it is investigating whether an organization backed by Internet billionaire and Democratic megadonor Reid Hoffman violated the social media giant’s policies when it set up several misleading news pages in a bid to target U.S. voters with left-leaning political messages.
The probe focuses on News for Democracy, whose Facebook ads and affiliated pages about sports, religion, the American flag and other topics were viewed millions of times during the 2018 midterm elections, according to an analysis of the company ad archive conducted by New York University.
News for Democracy’s potential violations may have included Facebook's community standards and advertising policies, the company said. Facebook’s community standards emphasize authenticity and ban “misrepresentation,” including coordinated efforts to mislead people about the origin of content.
Some of News for Democracy’s pages inserted Democratic messages into the feeds of right-leaning voters, according to a review of Facebook’s ad archive. News for Democracy ran ads touting Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) on “The Holy Tribune,” a Facebook page targeted to evangelicals, the archive shows. Another page called “Sounds Like Tennessee” focused on local sports and news but also ran at least one ad attacking since-elected Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).
“People start to trust the content emanating from the page, because it appeals to their interests, and once there is a certain degree of trust, you can start to pivot by slowly adding in kernels of disinformation or overly politicized information that lacks context,” said Benjamin T. Decker, research fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, who called such tactics an “intentional act of deception” that mimicked strategies of Russian operatives around the 2016 presidential election.
During the 2018 midterms, News for Democracy helped create at least 14 Facebook pages and purchased the ads that ran on them, according to a person familiar with its operations who was not authorized to speak on the record. While the ads, cached in Facebook’s public database, show that News for Democracy paid for them, the pages themselves — which are listed as news companies — do not disclose their backers or offer any identifying information beyond their name.
The pages also don’t offer contact information for an administrator, a standard practice for news organizations and groups on Facebook.
Dmitri Mehlhorn, Hoffman’s top political adviser and a board member of News for Democracy, declined to comment. Mehlhorn said in a previous interview that News for Democracy aimed to cultivate “outreach to groups that were center [and] center-right, and trying to reach out to them with messages.”
The News for Democracy pages were created by another start-up backed by Hoffman called MotiveAI, according to the person. MotiveAI declined to comment.
It is unclear who else is behind News for Democracy or when it started. Hoffman did not respond to requests for comment.
News for Democracy is exposing potential gaps in the law and in Facebook’s approach to fighting misinformation. Facebook pages, including those listed as news organizations, are not required to disclose identifying information beyond the page’s name — unlike the requirement that buyers of political ads reveal their origins, a response to the Russian interference that dogged social media platforms during the 2016 election and afterward. Such disclosures are not required by law.
A Facebook spokesman said the company was reviewing its approach. “People connecting with [pages] shouldn’t be misled about who’s behind them,” said Facebook spokesman Matt Steinfeld. “Just as we’ve stepped up our enforcement of coordinated inauthentic behavior and financially motivated spam over the past year, we’ll continue improving so people can get more information about the pages they follow.”
Facebook declined to comment on which policies the group may have violated. It has used its community standards and advertising policies to shut down attempts by Russian and Iranian agents to manipulate the American public on its platform.
News for Democracy is the latest Hoffman-backed organization that has come under scrutiny in recent weeks. Last month, reports by The Washington Post and the New York Times found that an investment from the LinkedIn co-founder ended up funding an operation to spread disinformation during the 2017 special election in Alabama, though Hoffman said he did not endorse its tactics. The Daily Beast first reported on News for Democracy’s pages in September.
The social network has poured significant resources into policing its platform since the Russia controversy, including doing some vetting of Facebook pages with large followings. Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg recently said the reckoning with such abuses has “fundamentally altered the DNA” of the company. But the guardrails around what constitutes appropriate domestic conduct are less clear than for foreigners, who are prohibited from buying ads targeting U.S. elections.
Facebook began its investigation of News for Democracy in December, after The Post first reported some details about the Alabama campaign, known as Project Birmingham. Facebook suspended at least one researcher involved, Jonathon Morgan, for violating its policies prohibiting coordinated inauthentic activity. That included the creation of a fake Facebook page that offered an endorsement of a write-in Republican candidate in the state’s 2017 special election for Senate.
Decker said that it was inauthentic and misleading for a left-leaning political operative to try to create communities of conservatives for the express purpose of sending those people political messages that would sway their thinking — and to use the label of a news organization to do so. “Calling yourself a media organization creates some kind of degree of trust and authority,” he said. “It’s harmful to the health of the digital public square, and should not have a place on Facebook.”
In the previous interview, Mehlhorn said that News for Democracy did not spread misinformation as part of its work. He disavowed disinformation as a tool for mobilizing American voters, but said that U.S. political groups could learn from Russia’s “troll army,” the Internet Research Agency, and its use of microtargeting to reach narrow groups of voters.
The study by the New York University Tandon School of Engineering found that News for Democracy’s ads garnered at least 16 million impressions, defined as views or clicks, over just a two-week period in September. The pages are still active.
“These groups find a community, they try to build it with nonpolitical content, and once they have that community established, they start inserting political messages,” said Laura Edelson, one of the NYU researchers.