Facebook has over the past year touted the steps it's taken to make political ads on its platform more transparent in the wake of Russian meddling on Facebook in 2016. But hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Texas voters who were targeted by ads from an anti-Ted Cruz meme page in the final weeks of the state's U.S. Senate election campaign would have no idea who's actually behind the ads, or who's paying for them.
Both CNN Business' findings regarding the page and other recent reporting raise questions about whether Facebook's political ads policy actually informs users the way it's supposed to — and whether Facebook is doing enough to vet the pages running those ads.
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The "Crush Cruz" page on Facebook first appeared on September 12th. Since then the person or people behind the page have spent almost $6,000 on dozens of Facebook ads, which doesn't sound like much, but according to Facebook data reviewed by CNN Business, the page could have reached more than a million Texans. Facebook took away the page's ability to run political ads in its current form after CNN Business inquired about it.
The ads call Cruz a "scumbag" and "the embarrassment of Texas," and the page's main picture includes the text, "Everybody hates Cruz."
The page posts almost daily but contains no information about who is behind it or whether or not it is affiliated with a campaign or PAC.
Facebook implemented new rules for American political advertisers earlier this year. Those rules require ad-buyers to provide Facebook with a copy of a government-issued ID and their Social Security information to help prove they are citizens or permanent residents of the United States.
While Facebook itself should know the identity of whoever is behind the "Crush Cruz" Facebook page, the company does not make political advertisers disclose to the public who they really are or whether they have any connection to a campaign or PAC.
The disclaimer on ads placed by the "Crush Cruz" page simply read "Paid for by Crush Cruz."
The administrator or administrators of the page would only communicate with CNN Business through Facebook Messenger, saying they wished to remain anonymous.
They said they were not part of any campaign or PAC. "I just think it's better to spend my money this way. I wanted to donate to the [Beto O'Rourke] campaign but as much as I want to see him [O'Rourke] win I'd also like to know how my money is being spent," they wrote.
When CNN Business asked if they were going to report their $6,000 ad spend to the Federal Election Commission, they wrote, "I guess I'll have to look into that. I'm not used to doing this sort of thing. I suppose I will if that's the law. Seems like if I wanna run some little page in my spare time I should be able. Pretty sure I can."
A Facebook spokesperson said the company had stopped the "Crush Cruz" page from running political ads after CNN Business' queries because the disclaimer given, "Paid for by Crush Cruz," did not accurately represent an entity or person.
The person or people behind the page did go through Facebook's authorization process, and provided Facebook with identifying information, the spokesperson said.
Facebook's ad review process appears to have missed the disclaimer it now says was a violation of its rules until CNN Business asked about it.
Vice News reported Thursday that Facebook had also missed ads in the names of Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez that were in fact placed by Vice News as a test of the system. Facebook removed the ads after Vice News brought them to their attention.
"Enforcement isn't perfect," Rob Leathern, director of product at Facebook, told Vice News.
In a statement provided to CNN Business, Leathern said, "Inaccurate disclaimers have no place on Facebook. We proactively and reactively review disclaimers and will immediately remove those that violate. We aren't going to stop everyone trying to game the system - transparency in political ad spending is a problem that exists both on and off Facebook - but we are working constantly to make it a whole lot harder."
The "Crush Cruz" Facebook page occasionally links out to the website CrushCruz.com. That website was registered to a person in Texas from 2015 until 2017.
In September, a day before the Facebook page went live, the website's registration details were set to private and the company that hosts the website was changed, online records reviewed by CNN show.
This could suggest that the person who the site was registered to between 2015 and 2017 is no longer involved with the website. CNN Business was unable to reach that person.
A spokesperson for the campaign of Beto O'Rourke, Cruz's Democratic challenger, said it was not behind the page and had not been aware of it until being contacted by CNN Business.
More anonymous ads
American politics is rampant with so-called "dark" money — that is, money given to and spent by groups not required to disclose their donors — and ads are regularly run on television networks by PACs whose sources of funding are not always clear. But platforms like Facebook allow users to set up pages like "Crush Cruz" that can reach thousands of voters with ease.
CNN Business found other examples of pages running political ads that don't make clear to Facebook users who paid for them, but none that had spent as much money as "Crush Cruz." While CNN Business identified a handful of pages, there may be many more.
One page called "Memes that are right," for instance, has spent a few hundred dollars on ads, mostly deriding Democrats. The person behind that page told CNN Business in a Facebook message they were a small business owner who "believes deeply in a conservative agenda being best for our nation and has the drive to support it."
Editor's note: Facebook has given CNN and other organizations access to its ad archive API to analyze political ad spending. The data featured in this story was gathered through Facebook's public political ad website, not its ad archive API.
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