Facebook Remains Haven for Flood of Misleading, False Ads About Mail-In Balloting

Bergen Smith and Frank Bass | September 28, 2020

This story was produced by MapLight and published in partnership with Fast Company.

Even as Facebook touts its efforts to curb misinformation that threatens to cast the legitimacy of the 2020 election into doubt, false advertisements and posts about mail-in voting continue to appear on the website, according to a MapLight review.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan donated $300 million to a pair of organizations that promote honest elections earlier this month, and the Menlo Park, Calif.-based social media giant also announced it would prohibit political ads during the week before the Nov. 3 election. Unlike Twitter, which has attempted to flag demonstrable falsehoods from President Trump and many of his allies, Facebook continues to be a “key vector of distribution for untrustworthy websites,” as one academic study concluded.

As a result, the legitimacy of the Nov. 3 election has been cast into doubt, primarily because of an unusually sustained effort to spread misinformation about mail-in voting. Mailed ballots, which have been a fixture of U.S. elections for more than two centuries, are likely to become more frequent amid the global coronavirus pandemic that’s encouraged Americans to avoid congregating in busy places such as schools, churches, and polling places.

Earlier this month, Trump -- who has voted by mail in the past -- sought to preemptively discredit the results of the upcoming election by urging his supporters to commit voter fraud by voting both in person and by mail. Trump has also blocked proposals that would provide extra funding to ensure that a flood of mailed ballots can be safely and securely handled by the U.S. Postal Service, state governments, and local officials.

Facebook policies prohibit “misrepresentation of who can vote, qualifications for voting, whether a vote will be counted, and what information and/or materials must be provided in order to vote.”  A MapLight review, however, finds that the White House isn’t the only entity spreading false information about mailed ballots. Indeed, a cursory review of Facebook’s advertising library found a handful of paid advertisements about mail-in ballots with five common elements:

  • The advertisements were all purchased for less than $500. 
  • All appeared within the last month. 
  • All were supportive of Trump. 
  • All had a potential audience of at least 1 million people.
  • All contained demonstrably false or misleading statements. Four of the five clearly violate Facebook’s policies; the fifth makes the false claim that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is attempting to use a coronavirus relief bill to force mail-only voting on the U.S. public.

    After requesting links to the advertisements, Facebook declined to respond further to MapLight’s queries.

Consider First Tuesday Conservatives, an online conservative group based in suburban St. Paul, Minn. It ran an advertisement on Aug. 4 that protested a judge’s order allowing voters in Minnesota to submit mail-in ballots without a witness signature. Similar rules were approved by Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon for the state’s Aug. 11 primary.

“How can we stand up against this?” the ad’s sponsors asked. “This is voter fraud!”

There is little evidence that voter fraud is a significant problem and even less research that indicates requiring witness signatures for mail-in ballots would discourage illegal votes. An FBI briefing last month noted that it would be difficult to commit vote fraud by mail. Anyone wanting to cast an illegal ballot by mail would need to find the addresses of registered voters, forge their signatures, and somehow copy barcodes assigned to the voters on special paper used for individual ballots.

The Most Perfect Union, a conservative Facebook page, was less specific, claiming that the opposition party hopes “to eliminate all controls designed to ensure free and fair elections such as using mail-in ballots on a wide scale that were mailed out to dead persons. No wonder they have always fought efforts to remove dead persons from voter rolls.”

To date, no credible lawmakers have suggested eliminating all controls for mail-in voting. The claim that Democrats have battled to keep dead people on voter rolls is extremely misleading; Democrats have frequently fought to prevent purges of voter rolls on the grounds that such changes tend to disenfranchise minority and low-income voters. A 2017 purge led by Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp -- now the state’s Republican governor -- removed 560,000 voters from the rolls, including at least 87,000 who were actually eligible to vote.

False Facebook advertisements weren’t limited to grassroots organizations, either. The 2020 American Defense Fund began running an ad shown to users older than 65, urging them “to discourage mail-in voting and prevent fraud.” It also offered an ad attacking “absentee or mail-in ballots that pose a threat to the future of our nation.” 

The 2020 American Defense Fund advertisement was purchased by C3 PAC, a McLean, Va.-based super PAC, for less than $100. The C3 PAC was created in June 2018, listing its treasurer as William K. Ozanus, a former treasurer for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and current treasurer for Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss.

The super PAC spent $10,000 on 750 Facebook ads in 2019, attacking Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., while promoting the Trump Victory Fund. The Trump campaign, however, denied it was affiliated with the C3 PAC and asked that the advertisements be removed.

Of course, the Trump campaign’s disavowal of the C3 PAC didn’t mean it rejected efforts to delegitimize mailed ballots. FreedomWorks, the dark money organization that spawned the Tea Party, is promoting the Protect My Vote website and Facebook advertisements, several of which have already been taken down for violating Facebook disclosure policies. The ads have been criticized for taking quotes from NBA star LeBron James out of context, since James has worked to ensure that Black Americans are able to vote.

The Facebook advertisements link to a website that includes dubious and misleading information by Hans von Spakovsky, a fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation. Spakovsky, whose 2006 confirmation to the Federal Election Commission was quashed by then-Sen. Barack Obama, has called mailed ballots the “vote thieves’ tool of choice.”

Another Trump-tied committee, the We Are Great Again PAC, makes the false assertion that House Speaker “Nancy Pelosi and the crooked Left are trying to force Mail-Only voting into the next Coronavirus bill.” While the ad doesn’t directly violate Facebook policies, it contains a demonstrable falsehood. Pelosi has shepherded legislation through the House that would boost federal funding to ensure states can securely count mailed ballots and require states to provide mail ballots to all eligible voters, but has not considered making mailed ballots mandatory. Trump, who has voted by mail, has blocked a coronavirus relief bill that contains the funding.

The PAC, which ran the ad from Aug. 9 to Aug. 11, spent $100 to reach potentially as many as 1 million viewers, primarily seen by women 65 and older living in California, Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The committee shares offices with Avenue Strategies, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm whose partners include two senior advisers to the Trump campaign.

Though Facebook did not respond to MapLight’s questions about these advertisements, the company is actively responding to some types of content that violate its policies. Facebook announced Thursday that it was barring three disinformation networks linked to Russian intelligence.

This month, MapLight launched a new Election Deception Tracker tool that allows anyone to quickly and easily report deceptive or problematic election-related information on Facebook to help protect the election and reduce the spread of false information online. With only a few clicks, users can capture content from their Facebook feeds that contains false or misleading content about the election, voting-by-mail, and other voter suppression or intimidation and send it to a team of election protection advocates who will analyze the information and push for its removal.