WASHINGTON ― Vice President Mike Pence’s campaign Facebook account hasn’t posted anything new since Jan. 15, 2017 (Pence also has an official account as the vice president that is updated regularly). The last video posted to the page is dated Oct. 25, 2016, during the final stretch of the campaign.
But if you’re a supporter of President Donald Trump, you may have received a Facebook update from the vice president on May 18 stating: “It’s SABOTAGE. The Fake News Media is working hand-in-hand with Washington’s corrupt bureaucracy to try to slow and block our America First Agenda. With so many forces out to ruin us, we are turning to you and our most trusted supporters at this critical moment to join us in the trenches to FIGHT BACK. Donate BIG today!”
On May 25, Pence’s account sent another exhortation to donate: “We just released our White House budget that fulfills the promises President Trump made to you on the campaign trail. The media is going to hate it.”
Another fundraising missive came from Pence in September with a familiar message: “We are refusing to let the Fake News media win this fight. They will not succeed in derailing our agenda. They will not succeed in silencing your voice. They will not succeed in cheating you out of the future you voted for.”
“The media and the Left have been working overtime to undermine our history,” Pence’s account blared in an October message that provided a special code for supporters to get 25 percent off their Trump campaign swag.
Again and again, in the privacy of such targeted Facebook fundraising appeals, the Trump team has hit on themes of media duplicity. HuffPost has identified over 150 nonpublic posts sent by the Trump and Pence accounts since the Jan. 20 inauguration. These nonpublic posts were viewed more than 20 million times in all. Nearly half of the fundraising appeals in particular mentioned the media or “fake news” in some capacity.
These nonpublic Facebook messages, often referred to as “dark posts,” are not unusual. They’re actually paid ads, sent to people whom the Trump 2020 campaign committee wants to target for small-dollar fundraising appeals and list building.
And these are just a small slice of the ads that Facebook will bring into public view sometime in 2018. The social media giant decided to implement an advertising disclosure policy after it was revealed that a Russian troll factory had bought ads for its fake Facebook pages as part of a Kremlin-directed influence operation aimed at the 2016 U.S. election. Congressional legislation introduced by lawmakers from both parties would similarly require online platforms to make these ads visible to the broader public.
All of the nonpublic ads from Trump and Pence that HuffPost found were either fundraising appeals or efforts to build the campaign’s email and social media lists of supporters. Many of them were practically identical except for the alteration of a few words; the Trump campaign was presumably testing which specific messages would produce the best results in terms of contributions, signatures or engagement. The same practice has long been routine with campaigns’ emails, which are also technically nonpublic unless you subscribe to the email list.
“I think any elected official that wants to make small-dollar fundraising a priority needs to be doing Facebook ads pretty much the entire time they’re in office,” Keegan Goudiss, a partner at Revolution Messaging and the former digital director for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), told HuffPost.
The Fake News Media is the REAL opposition. It’s up to us to get things done and drain the swamp in Washington. Trump Facebook ad sent on Aug. 8
Like the fundraising efforts of many other campaigns, the messages in the Trump and Pence dark posts hit familiar, emotionally resonant themes that encourage supporters to open their wallets. Fear and impending doom are a common trope in small-dollar fundraising appeals coming from both political parties. If supporters give now, they’re told, they can help stop whatever bad thing the campaign is warning them about.
“The Fake News Media is the REAL opposition,” a Trump Facebook ad sent on Aug. 8 said. “It’s up to us to get things done and drain the swamp in Washington. President Trump has been listening to the REAL America, and knows you’re with him.”
“The Fake News Media has been flooding the airwaves with nonstop coverage of the phony ‘Russia investigation,’ and now they talk about obstruction?” asked another ad sent by the Pence Facebook account on June 17.
A June 28 ad sent from both the Trump and Pence campaigns declaimed, “Show the FAKE NEWS they WILL NOT GET AWAY with spreading lies about my administration and our America First agenda! Contribute NOW. Help us cut through the Fake News’ lies and fight back!”
Another common practice involves tying an appeal for money to a news event that supposedly shows why the recipient should either support the president or be furious with his perceived enemies.
When the Supreme Court allowed parts of Trump’s travel ban to take effect on June 27, a Facebook message alerted his followers: “Today we saw what happens when an elected leader actually FIGHTS for the people he represents. But now radical fringe groups like the ACLU are going to raise millions to launch a flurry of deceitful attacks to stop us. Join President Trump, and let’s fight for the security of our nation. Contribute NOW!”
Amid news reports that his administration was planning to build a fence in places along the Mexican border instead of his promised wall, a Trump Facebook ad blared, “There’s been a lot of noise and a lot of rumors. Let me set the record straight in the simplest language possible… ...WE WILL BUILD A WALL (NOT A FENCE) ALONG THE SOUTHERN BORDER OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA TO HELP STOP ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION AND KEEP AMERICA SAFE. Apparently, liberals in Congress and the mainstream media need one more reminder that building the wall is non-negotiable. So please, join the movement and demand that we BUILD THE WALL!”
Another Trump ad came after Pence, in a preplanned display, left an NFL game at which players knelt during the national anthem: “Yesterday a bunch of San Francisco 49ers took a knee during our National Anthem. Their stunt showed the world that they don’t believe our flag is worth standing for. Contribute at least $3 now to show your support, and our team will send you an ‘I STAND FOR THE FLAG’ sticker.”
“There are moments where [supporters] get fired up and it’s a good opportunity for them to fundraise,” Goudiss said.
Not all Facebook dark posts ask for money. During the 2016 campaign, the Trump team targeted ads at specific groups in key states for the purpose of depressing their interest in supporting Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Young African-American men received ads about Clinton’s use of the phrase “super-predators” in the 1990s, and young women were targeted with ads highlighting Clinton’s past statements about women who had accused her husband of sexual misconduct.
And not all dark posts that aimed to boost Trump came from his campaign. Make America Number 1, a super PAC founded and funded by billionaire hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, ran nonpublic ads on Facebook targeting Clinton.
Emily Las, a New York-based digital marketer, collected links for more than a dozen Facebook dark posts made by the super PAC in the final two months of the 2016 election and put them on Twitter. The ads were all originally posted on the super PAC’s YouTube account, and some of them aired on television stations in battleground states, but they also garnered large audiences through nonpublic advertising on Facebook.
The most viewed of those Facebook ads was one attacking Clinton as bad for women. The ad said that women working for Clinton when she was a senator earned 72 cents for every dollar earned by men on her staff. Posted on Oct. 14, 2016, it was viewed at least 1.7 million times and shared more than 9,500 times. A Facebook ad claiming Clinton “did nothing” after the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attacks was viewed 1.6 million times and shared over 8,700 times. Another ad claiming that President Bill Clinton pardoned Puerto Rican terrorists in order to help his wife win her New York Senate seat was viewed at least 1.2 million times and shared over 4,000 times.
Under Facebook’s self-imposed policy or the proposed legislation in Congress, these ads and their target demographics would also be publicly disclosed, alongside all those fundraising appeals sent out in 2017 by the Trump campaign.