The Facebook page for Budgeting California had only five visible posts about innocuous issues like gas prices, property taxes and a personal finance workshop hosted by the Los Angeles Rams before Tuesday ― when California holds its first-round primary elections. But the page had purchased dozens of ads that used conservative messaging to oppose Shawn Nelson and Bob Huff, two Republicans running in the state’s 39th Congressional District. On Election Day, a public post appeared attacking Nelson.
The creators of Budgeting California are two super PACs affiliated with the Democratic Party.
This is not a new practice. Campaigns and PACs on both sides of the partisan divide have been setting up Facebook pages and websites under names not their own for at least the past 10 years. What’s changed is that it has become much easier to find these pages and identify who is behind them since Facebook set up a database on May 24 to disclose political ads running on its platform.
In the past, many of the Facebook ads run by campaigns and PACs could be viewed only by the specific users targeted by the advertisers. Different segments of the voting population saw different ads, without knowing what other people could see. And the Facebook pages running the ads often had names that were not immediately identifiable with any political party, in an effort to influence audiences who would otherwise discount the source.
That is still the case with pages like Budgeting California, Orange County Crooks and SoCal Priorities. Budgeting California is run by House Majority PAC and Priorities USA Action, two major Democratic players. The same two groups are behind Orange County Crooks, a page that bought ads against Scott Baugh, a Republican running in California’s 48th Congressional District. The SoCal Priorities page is run by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and aims to divert Republican votes away from Baugh and toward rival Republican John Gabbard.
The Democratic Party is particularly interested in flipping the House seats in California’s 39th and 48th districts this year. Because of California’s “jungle” primary system ― in which the two top vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election ― parties can’t wait until the general election to take on the other side.
“Campaigns and political organizations have long created branded websites that share specific information with voters,” said Josh Schwerin, a spokesman for Priorities USA Action. “These are locally focused pages for sharing articles and information from reputable news outlets and clearly labeled political sites that are of interest to voters in a specific region.”
Spokesmen for House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC, another Democratic Party organization, also told HuffPost that they run Facebook ads to aim state- or race-specific messaging at a local audience.
Democrats aren’t the only ones using such ads to reach voters in California. American Future Fund, a conservative nonprofit that does not disclose its donors, runs two pages called California Voter Update and California Voter Action. California Voter Update’s ads promote Baugh; Young Kim, a Republican running in the 39th District; and Diane Harkey, a Republican running in the 49th District. California Voter Action runs ads attacking Kristin Gaspar, a Republican running against Harkey. (Republicans are trying to hold onto the 49th District seat after its longtime GOP representative decided not to run for re-election.)
It turns out that American Future Fund is itself another layer obscuring the real advertiser here. The actual writer of the checks is Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), according to Politico.
Some groups choose not to obscure their affiliation. Patriot Majority USA, a Democratic Party-affiliated nonprofit group that doesn’t disclose its donors, advertises through Facebook pages that explicitly state the partisan purpose of the ads. The group’s get-out-the-vote pages ― Your Voting Record Is Public, Vote For A Better California and Send DC A Message on June 5th ― have all aimed to convince those voters likely to support Democratic candidates to head to the polls on Tuesday. The targeting information revealed by Facebook’s new disclosure system shows that the get-out-the-vote ads target young women, a very favorable constituency for Democrats.
The head of Patriot Majority USA offered another reason for why those Facebook pages aren’t simply named for the super PAC.
“We believe that the page name is valuable real estate in the way that Facebook advertisements are served,” said Craig Varoga. “It is the very first thing that the user sees before the actual advertising copy and it is a best practice to use that real estate with content that will drive the message we’re looking to spread.”
Although California’s primary process has drawn a lot of party attention this year, political organizations are using localized pages in other states as well. Senate Majority PAC and Priorities USA Action run local pages to support the re-election campaigns of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.). House Majority PAC has three different pages on Facebook targeting negative ads at Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.). Similar local pages with names different from their owners’ are weighing in on gubernatorial races in Illinois, Nevada and Vermont. In one case, a Republican Senate candidate in Virginia, E.W. Jackson, purchased ads through the Facebook page for Official Wire, a seemingly defunct conservative news site.
These semi-hidden local pages and discreet advertising practices will continue trying to influence voters through the November general election. Now, it’s possible to keep track of them.