Watchdog Sues to Force Facebook to Reveal Political Ad Sponsor

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A watchdog group is seeking to force Facebook Inc. to disclose who paid for online political ads on the social media site in 2018 that promoted Green Party candidates in certain House and Senate races.

The Campaign Legal Center (CLC) has filed a lawsuit to enable it to subpoena Facebook for information on America Progress Now. The CLC sued the Federal Election Commission for failing to act on the group’s complaint about APN, which the suit alleges “is not a real entity.” The FEC currently lacks a quorum of commissioners and can’t act on any enforcement matters.

Federal campaign finance law provides that a complainant may file a “citizen suit” to enforce the law if the FEC doesn’t act, but the provision is largely untested. CLC’s goal is to get the federal court in Washington, D.C. to allow such a suit, according to attorney Adav Noti. The watchdog would then be able to subpoena Facebook for the information necessary to identify who’s behind the ad sponsor and get penalties imposed for false disclaimers and illegal non-reporting of campaign spending.

Courts Urged to Enforce Campaign Finance Law as Regulator Idles

“Billions of dollars are being spent on Facebook election ads, and voters have a right to know who’s spending that money,” said Noti, CLC’s litigation director and a former FEC staff attorney. The law requires that political ads have disclaimers identifying who’s paying for them and that sponsors report spending on ads calling for the election or defeat of federal candidates, according to the lawsuit.

(Photo by Gabby Jones/Bloomberg)

Facebook didn’t respond to an email seeking comment the lawsuit.

The FEC routinely declines to comment on litigation.

Not Real

The Facebook ad sponsor targeted in the lawsuit never registered or filed independent expenditure reports with the FEC, doesn’t appear in corporate records or have a website, and the apartment building listed as its address on its Facebook page has no record of the entity’s existence, according to the lawsuit.

APN’s Facebook ads appeared up until the Nov. 6 election in 2018 and promoted Green Party candidates in two Senate races and three House races, including a close Senate contest in Missouri in which Republican Josh Hawley defeated incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill. The ads were aimed at liberals living in the targeted states and districts and encouraged viewers not to vote for Democrats or Republicans.

“Vote against corporate interests and greedy politicians. Vote against the two party system,” said an APN ad supporting Green Party Senate candidate Jo Crain in Missouri included in Facebook’s political ad archives.

Some of the ads featured images of progressive politicians, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez(D-N.Y.). Sanders’ Senate office contacted Facebook in 2018 and asked that the ads be taken down, but Facebook refused to do so, according to a report by ProPublica.

The FEC and social media platforms have been under pressure to increase scrutiny of online political ads since the 2016 presidential election, when Russian interference included purchase of Facebook ads. Facebook and others have announced new corporate policies for political ads, but the FEC deadlocked on repeated attempts to write new rules aimed at increasing transparency.

The lack of new federal rules and gaps in corporate policies of the platforms carrying political ads means that “any individual or entity, foreign or domestic, could meddle in U.S. elections at any scale, without fear of disclosure or enforcement,” the lawsuit said. Meanwhile, overall spending on online political ads is skyrocketing and is expected to rise to nearly $2.8 billion in 2020.

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