Same Old Song

Shadowy Facebook Ads That Pushed Trump Are Back in Alabama

Three months after Mark Zuckerberg pledged to stop external forces from disproportionately affecting U.S. elections, targeted ads are bombarding voters in a pivotal Senate race.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama—Yvonne Trosclair doesn’t know who’s behind America First Action—which keeps running pro-Roy Moore ads here on television and on Facebook ahead of the U.S. Senate election on Tuesday—but she knows they’re not from Alabama.

“The ad campaign is ridiculous by itself, but there’s nothing that makes my skin crawl more than hearing ‘Alabamans’ instead of ‘Alabamians,’” Trosclair told The Daily Beast. “It’s the first thing they say.”

Trosclair took to America First Action’s nascent Facebook page to vent her frustrations, just as several others have done over the past week after they were bombarded with targeted content from the pro-Donald Trump PAC’s $1 million ad buy. At press time, the group had a 1.7-star rating on Facebook out of 5.

What Trosclair didn’t find was much identifying information from America First Action, including where the PAC is based. That sort of pivotal disclosure is one of the several promises Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg made in his highly publicized address three months ago aimed at fixing veiled political advertising on the platform, which was said to have helped Trump win.

In response to the social media giant’s failure to prevent anonymous foreign actors from targeting U.S.-based elections, Zuckerberg laid out several promises aimed at stopping external forces from disproportionately affecting American elections.

Russia’s “troll farm” in St. Petersburg was able to target millions of Americans with just hundreds of thousands of dollars in ad money to push pro-Trump messages in an attempt to swing districts in the run-up to the 2016 election.

Former Trump campaign digital director Brad Parscale—who is working with America First Action's parent organization—told 60 Minutes in October that Facebook was “how he won.” Campaign officials used “embedded” Facebook staff to micro-target potential voters. Unofficial campaign groups also flooded Facebook with ads of dubious origin without clearly explaining where they came from or who paid for them.

With polls set to open in a pivotal nail-biter of a Senate race on Tuesday in Alabama, none of Zuckerberg's promised policies have taken effect.

So it's hard for ordinary Alabama voters to know where exactly these ads on their feed are coming from.

America First Action’s headquarters are difficult to pin down on the web, let alone on Facebook. The organization doesn’t provide a location on Facebook or its website. FEC documents show that the group is based out of 1400 Crystal Drive in Arlington, Virginia.

America First Action, the super PAC arm of pro-Trump dark money group America First Policies, was founded this year by top Trump operatives, including Rick Gates, the since-indicted former campaign aide, and Nick Ayers, now vice president Mike Pence's chief of staff. Now run by Republican consultant Brian Walsh, the group's only reported income this year has come from Ronald Weiser, the chairman of the Michigan Republican Party and a top RNC fundraiser in 2016.

In addition to location disclosure, Zuckerberg and Facebook’s vice presidents of advertising and public policy pledged a suite of new features that would force more disclosures from political advertisers and result in greater transparency for users.

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“You still don't know if you're seeing the same messages as everyone else. So we're going to bring Facebook to an even higher standard of transparency,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook Live video that received international press attention in September. “Not only will you have to disclose which page paid for an ad, but we will also make it so you can visit an advertiser's page and see the ads they're currently running to any audience on Facebook.”

The Facebook CEO promised to “roll this out over the coming months, and we will work with others to create a new standard for transparency in online political ads.”

None of those features are currently accessible to Alabamians being served ads by both pro-Roy Moore PACs, like America First Action, and, ostensibly, groups backing Democratic candidate Doug Jones, such as one called Alabama Values.

A Facebook spokesperson pointed The Daily Beast to an Oct. 27 blog post by Facebook vice president of advertising Rob Goldman that said the changes weren’t scheduled to be rolled out in the U.S. until next summer but are being tested elsewhere.

“We will start this test in Canada and roll it out to the US by this summer, ahead of the US midterm elections in November, as well as broadly to all other countries around the same time,” Goldman wrote on Oct. 27.

America First Action’s ads focus less on Alabama-related themes and more on divisive national issues pushed by the GOP such as abortion restrictions; and those championed by President Trump, like NFL players who kneel during the national anthem.

“In ALABAMA we honor our Vets every time we play the Nation Anthem,” one ad reads, misspelling “national anthem.”

Another shows Jones tethered to strings like a marionette beneath a hand with the words “Nancy Pelosi” on its wrist. “PELOSI PUPPET,” it reads beneath a picture of Jones, who is also identified with a lapel pin.

America First Action poured more than $1 million into the state for the final stretch of the campaign just last week.

While outside dark-money groups have spent millions to support and tear down both candidates in the race, only Jones is actively campaigning in the run-up to Election Day. Moore has not appeared in public since last Tuesday and will hold his final campaign rally on Monday night in rural southeastern Alabama. Neither party has deployed its campaign apparatus to the fullest extent to aid their respective candidates in a race that could shift the balance of the Senate—and have lasting effects on Trump’s legislative agenda.

Trosclair has just a couple more days of hearing the ads that she says she’s “heard a billion times, blastin’ on my TV.” She hopes her Facebook post on America First Action’s page, complete with an eye-roll emoji and the hashtag #YouDontKnowUs, will get the group to take the hint—or at least change its ad copy.

“They’re clearly not from the state if they’re not saying Alabamians,” she said.

UPDATE: This story has ben updated to provide more information about America First Action and its backers.