Facebook said it is investigating whether an organization backed by billionaire and Democratic megadonor Reid Hoffman violated the social media giant’s policies when it set up a series of misleading news pages in a bid to target 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 congressional midterm election, 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 Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke 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 GOP Sen. Marsha Blackburn.
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“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 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.