Republican Facebook ads for Georgia runoffs contain misinformation, research finds

Facebook ads backing Republican candidates in Tuesday’s crucial Georgia Senate runoff elections contain misinformation, according to a new report. 

Nearly 100 ads released by the campaigns of Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, as well as the Republican Party and top GOP super PACs, contained claims that had been debunked by third party fact-checkers, according to an analysis the nonprofit advocacy group Avaaz shared with The Hill on Monday. 

Additionally, the group’s researchers found a handful of ads from conservative-leaning groups promoted “discriminatory and sensationalist content” that also appeared to violate Facebook’s policies. 

The research reviewed ads on Facebook between Dec. 23 and 29, shortly after the company announced it would be partially lifting its post-election political ad ban for ads related to the Georgia Senate runoffs. 

The runoff is key for both parties. If Perdue or Loeffler are successful, Republicans will keep the majority in the upper chamber. But if Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock win, Democrats will take back control of the Senate, giving the party the majority of both chambers of Congress as well as the White House when the Biden administration takes over later this month. 

When Facebook announced it would lift the ad ban for the Georgia race, the company pledged to fight misinformation and interference in the Georgia election, including applying warning labels to content that its fact-checking partners rate false or partially false. 

But Avaaz campaign director Nathan Miller said the tech giant has failed to do so. 

“Plain and simple, Facebook is not protecting Georgia voters from political disinformation,” Miller said in a statement. “Facebook opened the floodgates for false and misleading information targeting Georgia voters when it lifted the ban on new political ads last month. Now Avaaz has found ads reaching millions of Georgians with misinformation and discriminatory content. The company is not even implementing its own policies.”

Facebook defended its handling of ads in response to the Avaaz report. 

“In Georgia, we’re connecting people to reliable information about the election and deploying the teams and technology we used in the general election to fight voter suppression,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “The campaign claims highlighted in the Avaaz report are also appearing on TV, radio, and in direct mail; the difference is Facebook’s Ad Library is transparent, making the claims more readily available for scrutiny.”

Avaaz’s research solely focused on ads on Facebook, not ads appearing digitally on other platforms or in other media. 

According to the Avaaz report, about half of the ads identified with misinformation were from politicians, who are exempt from Facebook’s fact-checking policies. The remaining half were from Super PACs, which are subject to Facebook’s policies on false and misleading ads.

A spokesperson for Avaaz told The Hill researchers found 18 of the 104 ads they flagged have been removed by Facebook for violating its ad policies, but others remained untouched. 

Avaaz researchers also viewed ads related to the runoff by the Democratic Party and the Warnock and Ossoff campaigns, as well as a handful of top liberal-learning advertisers. But Avaaz said its researchers did not find any misinformation in ads from liberal-leaning advertisers, the Democratic campaigns or from Democratic Party sources. 

The research cited one ad from the Senate Leadership Fund that pushed a debunked claim that Ossoff is “threatening to defund the police.” The candidate has repeatedly said he does not support those actions. 

The Senate Leadership Fund spent $15,000-$20,000 to promote two ads with the copy of the debunked claims and as of Dec. 29 the ads had between 900,000 and 1 million impressions, according to Avaaz. 

Avaaz confirmed Monday that 14 of the 18 removed ads were the Senate Leadership Fund’s ads that falsely claim Ossoff supports defunding the police. 

Avaaz researchers also identified an ad from the conservative American Principles Project, urging voters to help Loeffler prevent transgender women from competing in women’s sports. The ad refers to the women as “biological boys,” and appears to violate Facebook’s advertising policy on discriminatory practices that states ads must not discriminate against gender identity, among other traits. 

Facebook had previously banned paid advertising and applied fact-check labels to similar copy from the American Principle Project about transgender participation in sports, NBC News reported.

Facebook and other tech giants have faced mounting scrutiny, from both sides of the aisle, over the handling of misinformation on their platforms. 

Democrats have widely criticized Facebook along with other tech giants for not taking greater action toward misinformation and hate speech online, while Republicans have leveled attacks of censorship and allegations of anti-conservative bias over platforms’ decision to label posts with false information. 

Tech giants may face greater pressure to reform their ad policies when President-elect Joe Biden takes office later this month. 

Tags Avaaz David Perdue Disinformation Facebook Fact-checking Georgia runoffs Georgia Senate runoffs Joe Biden Jon Ossoff Kelly Loeffler misinformation NBC News Raphael Warnock
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