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A view of the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse in Washington
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Suit filed with the US District Court in Washington aims to do what the Federal Election Commission cannot.
FEC-LESS

Transparency advocates sue to reveal who’s behind a shadowy Facebook campaign

Atlanta
Jeremy B. Merrill
By Jeremy B. Merrill

Investigative reporter

From our Obsession

The New Propaganda

What are the new weapons in the arsenal of influence?

You can violate US campaign finance rules with impunity on Facebook. Election officials can’t stop you. Facebook won’t stop you. So a transparency watchdog group is suing.

In the last days before the 2018 midterm elections, “America Progress Now” began running Facebook ads in some swing districts with pictures of Bernie Sanders and Drake urging liberals to vote for Green Party candidates.

Drake in a 2018 ad by the mysterious “American Progress Now.”

Outside groups are allowed to spend money like that, but they must disclose their spending to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). “America Progress Now” didn’t do that. What’s worse, it doesn’t appear to have been an outside group—and didn’t appear to have had any legal existence whatsoever. It seems to have just been a Facebook page.

That means we have absolutely no idea who was behind it. It could have been Russian meddlers, though it probably wasn’t. It was likely just a Republican consultant with a few grand to burn trying to siphon votes away from Democrats. (Several of the Green Party candidates mentioned in the ads said they hadn’t had any contact with “America Progress Now.”)

A Green party candidate in a 2018 “American Progress Now” ad.

That creates a second legal problem. Ads that “expressly advocate” for or against candidates must disclose who paid for the ads. Usually that’s a person, a campaign or some sort of non-profit. But “because APN is not a real entity, it could not have paid for the” ads, the Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan campaign-finance transparency group, said in its court filing.

That’s why “John Doe” and “Jane Doe” were listed as the defendants in a complaint filed with the FEC in September by the group.

“The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is the only government agency with the sole responsibility of enforcing the laws that govern our campaign finance system,” Adav Noti, senior director of trial litigation at the Campaign Legal Center, told Quartz.

But the FEC hasn’t acted. It can’t. It only has three commissioners, and needs at least four to act. (The Senate is arguing over who to appoint.)

That’s why the Campaign Legal Center filed a lawsuit against the FEC on Thursday. The non-profit wants a federal court to order the FEC to act. Since the FEC can’t act, that would let the Campaign Legal Center sue whoever’s behind “America Progress Now” to enforce the law.

Whoever is behind America Progress Now didn’t respond to Facebook messages directed to its Facebook page about its identity or about the lawsuit.

Nobody knows who’s behind this group, except maybe Facebook—and the platform has said only that the ads followed its rules. Facebook’s rules at the time required political advertisers to verify their identity with Facebook. Quartz has asked Facebook for comment on Campaign Legal Center’s lawsuit and is awaiting a response.

“Voters have a right to know who is funding these ads so they can weigh their credibility and cast an informed vote,” Noti said.

Facebook says “they’re so transparent about ads and they’re so incredibly good about providing info to the public,” Ann Ravel, a former Democratic FEC commissioner, told Quartz. “But the fact is, on things that really matter, they aren’t.”

Let us know if you know more.

This story is part of the Quartz investigation team’s focus on online influence and the 2020 US election. If you work in this industry and have tips or insights, here’s how to reach us:

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