Facebook has imposed rules to limit the reach of political groups that disguise their content as coming from local newsrooms, a crackdown that hits political ads from both the left and the right but in particular targets a big liberal advocacy group.
In a pivot from social media platforms targeting conservatives’ speech, the Facebook policy strikes a blow against Acronym, which pledged last fall to spend $25 million running leftist digital newsrooms in key battleground states during the 2020 campaign season.
Under Facebook’s new guidelines, digital newsrooms propped up by political activists may register as news pages, but they will be blocked from inclusion in Facebook News. Facebook said it could choose to ban news publishers from promoting their content if they fail to follow rules about misinformation and disclosure. Publishers will have to undergo an authorization and disclaimer process to run ads promoting their content about politics, elections and social issues.
“Organizations that Facebook believes are state-controlled media and registered news pages in the U.S. that have direct, meaningful ties to political entities are required to go through the authorization process when running ads about social issues, elections or politics and place ‘Paid for by’ disclaimers on such ads,” Facebook’s announcement says. “These ads will enter the Ad Library.”
While Facebook’s policy is one-size-fits-all, it is poised to hit one group in particular: Acronym. The “dark money” liberal group, which doesn’t disclose its donors, is relying on unwitting audiences to think its content is the same as local newsrooms’ journalism. Last fall, Acronym said it would run newsrooms in the battlegrounds of Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Since the start of its efforts to disguise its political campaign as digital news, Acronym has spent more than $3.3 million on Facebook ads promoting its content from its national Courier Newsroom and individual affiliates across those six states, according to the Facebook Ad Library.
In the seven days before Facebook’s policy was announced, the Courier Newsroom network spent more than $100,000 on Facebook ads promoting its content.
By contrast, the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action developed its own digital news website, The American Herald, which has spent $6,137 on Facebook ads promoting its content since it started June 29, according to the Facebook Ad Library.
Conservatives cheered Facebook’s move for delivering a victory against their big-spending opponents.
Former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt has sought to spotlight Acronym’s influence operations from his perch leading the conservative watchdog Americans for Public Trust.
“Facebook confirms what Americans for Public Trust has been reporting on for months — Courier Newsroom is a fake news operation,” Mr. Laxalt said.
Acronym’s larger political endeavors, however, will not be stopped by Facebook’s policy shift. Acronym has an affiliated political action committee called Pacronym that is largely unaffected by Facebook’s rules change. Together, Acronym and Pacronym said they would spend $75 million on a “Four Is Enough” campaign against the reelection of President Trump. Neither Acronym nor Pacronym responded to requests for comment.
Michael Beckel, research director at campaign finance watchdog Issue One, said Facebook’s new policy will not lay a finger on super PACs, candidates or political parties. Mr. Beckel criticized Congress for not acting to create uniform standards for political advertising and deferring to individual social media companies to define the rules.
“Today, the sponsors of political ads must navigate a hodgepodge of rules set by each social media company, rules that are frequently changing,” Mr. Beckel said in an email. “Uniform policies would help ensure transparency in digital advertising across platforms and help bring certainty to the marketplace for the sponsors of political ads.”
Facebook has historically favored far less restrictive political advertising policies than some of its competitors. Twitter has banned all political advertising on its platform. Adobe, which services video advertisers online, is preparing to enact a similar ban on political advertising at the end of August.
Facebook has often followed the lead of other social media companies’ advertising decisions, but Google is still planning how to thwart political advertisers camouflaged as newsrooms, according to reports.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg this summer outlined an overhaul of how his company would handle election-related content. Mr. Zuckerberg said the company would start labeling politicians’ speech that violated its policies, prohibit more content from appearing in ads, and start efforts to proactively remove false content in the final hours before elections.
Facebook also has set a goal of registering 4 million voters ahead of the Nov. 3 elections as part of a plan that a company executive labeled the “largest voter information campaign in U.S. history.”
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