Pro-Trump group seeks to divide Democrats by posing as leftists
June 12, 2021 12:04 AM   Subscribe

"Vote against corporate interests and greedy politicians. Vote against the two party system. VOTE for our future and our children's future. Vote Jo Crain to represent Missouri in the U. S. Senate!" America Progress Now ran Facebook ads promoting Green party candidates during the 2018 US midterm elections. Who is America Progress Now? Turns out that it doesn't really exist: the ads were actually run by Rally Forge, a digital marketing firm closely linked to the pro-Trump Turning Point USA. The Guardian: Rightwing firm posed as leftist group on Facebook to divide Democrats.
posted by russilwvong (32 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
“There were no policies at Facebook against pretending to be a group that did not exist, an abuse vector that has also been used by the governments of Honduras and Azerbaijan,” said Sophie Zhang [previously], a former Facebook employee and whistleblower who played a small role in the investigation of the Green party ads.
posted by russilwvong at 12:06 AM on June 12 [16 favorites]


When 4chan raiders get an marketing budget.
posted by jaduncan at 2:26 AM on June 12 [7 favorites]


Fraud is bad. But it might have been wasted money. The results were:

Josh Hawley (ugh) - 1,254,927 votes - 51.4%
Claire McCaskill - 1,112,935 - 45.6%
Craig O'Dear (independent) - 34,398 - 1.4%
Japheth Campbell (libertarian) - 27.316 - 1.1%
Jo Crain - 12,706 - .5%
posted by zompist at 3:04 AM on June 12 [3 favorites]


Democrats can divide themselves just fine without any outside help. Democrats think for themselves, while republicans believe what they are told by their leaders. That's why rallying democrats to defeat republicans is like herding cats.

That said, this tactic is despicable and illustrates why we need political transparency and must support investigative journalism.
posted by Miss Cellania at 4:16 AM on June 12 [25 favorites]


Is anyone even slightly surprised by this?
posted by octothorpe at 4:46 AM on June 12 [9 favorites]


In Minnesota, the Republicans were caught running a candidate for the "Legal Marijuana Now" party in the 2nd Congressional District. When the spoiler candidate died of a fentanyl overdose before the election, Republicans sued to have the election delayed until February 2021.

The spoiler candidate attempt didn't work--the DFL (Democrats) carried the 2nd--and the lawsuit was thrown out, but they tried.
posted by gimonca at 6:04 AM on June 12 [7 favorites]


I've found Social Fixer useful for culling political content of any kind from my Facebook feeds.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:18 AM on June 12 [3 favorites]


Democrats can divide themselves just fine without any outside help

"I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat." -- Will Rogers
posted by Modest House at 6:37 AM on June 12 [20 favorites]


Astroturfing is a huge, and largely invisible, problem. Here's an example of a ginned-up "grassroots" campaign against "woke" content in schools.
posted by JHarris at 7:01 AM on June 12 [11 favorites]


Fraud is bad. But it might have been wasted money. The results were:

Josh Hawley (ugh) - 1,254,927 votes - 51.4%
Claire McCaskill - 1,112,935 - 45.6%
Craig O'Dear (independent) - 34,398 - 1.4%
Japheth Campbell (libertarian) - 27.316 - 1.1%
Jo Crain - 12,706 - .5%


Advertising, and in particular political advertising, isn't about just the subject of the thing in the ad. It's in the service of a larger goal. In commercial advertising, that's not always going to be "buy the product in the ad;" it can be "remember us," "know that we're prominent/significant," "invest in us," etc.

The most direct goal of these ads isn't to get votes for Jo Crain (though that's one way that it can achieve its larger goal); it's to make sure Josh Hawley gets more votes than Claire McCaskill. Whether that's because a left-leaning person votes for Crain, or because they stayed home, or because they voted for Hawley or any other candidate out of a sense that they might better align with their values, the direct goal is achieved.

There's also the indirect goals of political advertising as well. So many studies have been spend on showing that political disinformation doesn't change individual votes near an election, but those studies aren't measuring more subtle effects like sowing doubt or generating/enhancing broader narratives that shape the way people think about issues. Consider an ad about how BP funds research into solar and wind energy. No one's choosing to fill up at a BP station over a Shell because of that. But a viewer without broader knowledge of the situation might come away buying into (fully or partially) the idea that BP is an "energy" company, not primarily an oil company that has enough money to fund some vanity projects.

An aside: I like to resist the urge to paint such people as being shamefully ignorant, because not everyone can follow politics with the same fervor that the average MeFite does; some of these people are also young and lacking the context of recent history, which typically isn't covered in schools or as widely discussed with young people.
posted by pykrete jungle at 7:03 AM on June 12 [23 favorites]


Isn't it funny how it's almost always right-wingers who are claiming something is a "false flag" operation.
posted by PhineasGage at 7:15 AM on June 12 [22 favorites]


It's Facebook's complicity in this that really upsets me. The basic political dirty trick is shitty but it's something we've seen before from hacks. Facebook amplifying it is awful.

The article makes Facebook's role a little unclear. The quote russilvwong posted is damning but it's one whistleblower's claim. Facebook's official response in the article is
We removed Rally Forge from our platforms for violating our policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior. Since the 2018 midterms, we have strengthened our policies related to election interference and political ad transparency.
Of course this quote doesn't say when they removed Rally Forge; too late, it turns out. Reading further it sounds like Facebook probably paid no particular attention to this ad campaign until the Guardian started asking questions about it a few months ago. I frankly can't follow all the details in the article about the subsequent FEC investigations, maybe I need more coffee.

I also have to give Facebook some credit for sharing ad data. The ad library is quite unusual, a searchable database of all ads and who is paying for them. Try to get that out of Google! Facebook is also sharing bulk data with academics about political ads.

I don't want to sound like a Facebook apologist! Despite these efforts they clearly have been failing at keeping deceptive political ads off their system. And there's a long, long list of anti-social system from the company that's been exploited by bad people. They aren't doing enough and what they're doing isn't working well enough. OTOH, they are doing something.
posted by Nelson at 7:22 AM on June 12 [3 favorites]


Here in Montana, the GOP paid people to collect signatures to get a Green Party candidate on the ballot.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:48 AM on June 12 [8 favorites]


> Isn't it funny how it's almost always right-wingers who are claiming something is a "false flag" operation.

We've called it Trump's Mirror for a few years now, but they've been like this for many years more. Whatever the thing they're strenuously protesting about, claiming the other party of doing? They're the ones doing it the most and hardest. Voter fraud. Accepting aid from foreign enemies. Swelling federal debt. The list goes on.

It's just like how people who lie all the time assume you're lying all the time also, and thus are the least likely, out of anyone, to believe you when you tell them the truth. Thieves think everyone steals, all the time.

Charges of hypocrisy against Republicans are ineffective. You cannot shame someone for a shameless act.
posted by glonous keming at 7:50 AM on June 12 [34 favorites]


Hasn’t this been standard operating procedure for the GOP for decades?
posted by mr_roboto at 8:21 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]


Astroturfing is a huge, and largely invisible, problem. Here's an example of a ginned-up "grassroots" campaign against "woke" content in schools.

I just now realized fake + grassroots = astroturf. I always understood the meaning to be about fake organizations but never got the clever etymology until now.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 8:31 AM on June 12 [18 favorites]


I do like that Facebook managed to put enough marketing strategists around a conference table to come up with a euphemism for what they were facing: “coordinated inauthentic behavior”. I'm going to start using that one at work myself.
posted by gimonca at 10:46 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]


Isn't it funny how it's almost always right-wingers who are claiming something is a "false flag" operation.

EAIAC - Every Accusation is a confession. For the GOP it’s a guideline that holds almost 100%.
posted by jmauro at 11:01 AM on June 12 [19 favorites]


Whatever the thing they're strenuously protesting about, claiming the other party of doing? They're the ones doing it the most and hardest. Voter fraud. Accepting aid from foreign enemies. Swelling federal debt. The list goes on.

The new one is to act like they're tough on big business by trying to break up tech company monopolies that aren't actually monopolies (Google/Facebook/Amazon) while allowing actual monopolies (Telecom industry/Comcast/AT&T/etc) to chug along untouched.

I mean, the FAANG absolutely needs to be reigned in, but the GOP aren't sincere about why they are trying to reign them in. They want carte blanche to lie online without anyone being able to call them out.
posted by deadaluspark at 11:20 AM on June 12 [8 favorites]


A couple of snippets about Trey Trainor, Trump appointee mentioned in the article:

“ In interviews in September 2020 with the Religion News Service, as well as Michael Voris of the right-wing Catholic website Church Militant, Trainor said that churches could endorse political candidates, contrary to common understandings of the Johnson Amendment, which bars tax-exempt nonprofits from endorsing political candidates.[13] He justified this by pointing to Trump's 2017 executive order that the amendment should not be enforced.[13] In the same interviews, Trainor called the separation of church and state a "fallacy" and accused Catholic bishops of "hiding behind" the church's nonprofit status to avoid involvement in the 2020 U.S. elections, which Trainor called a "spiritual war."[13]”

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_E._Trainor_III

“I do believe that there is voter fraud taking place” in key states in the 2020 presidential election, Trainor told the conservative outlet Newsmax last week. The allegations were quickly seized upon by the president’s allies, including his son Donald Trump Jr., in their efforts to overturn the results of an election that experts both in and out of the federal government have said was remarkably secure and reliable.

Such proclamations carry a bit of extra weight when coming from the chair of the FEC. But Trainor’s sole source for it appears to be the word of Sidney Powell, a right-wing attorney who’s representing the Trump campaign in its efforts to block the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory.

https://www.thedailybeast.com/trey-trainor-the-nations-top-election-official-has-overdosed-on-the-trump-kool-aid
posted by Warren Terra at 12:03 PM on June 12 [4 favorites]


There's a 2004 book Toxic Sludge is Good For You that uses the term. It's where I first heard it. I don't know if the authors actually coined it, but they definitely gave it currency.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:43 PM on June 12 [2 favorites]


Last Week Tonight on Astroturfing explains that etymology in the first 30 seconds of the segment. It's a good ep.
posted by axiom at 12:49 PM on June 12 [3 favorites]


i don't understand why politics has to be fair. i'm tired of all the whining on both sides when politics gets dirty (although as already mentioned it's speculative in this instance it worked). please, there's never been a time when politics was fair and not dirty. also, why does the right have to be so good at this vs the left? quite frankly, it's an embarrassment. plus underlying all of this is the idea that voters are stupid and can't make informed decisions.
posted by iboxifoo at 1:08 PM on June 12


The issue is less dirty politics, which has been happening forever, usually in the form of flyers/pamphleteering with obviously false information. What has changed, and what makes it a serious problem are issues of scale/reach that allow some asshole in Georgia to run campaigns in California and microtargeting that makes it so that a timely response is impossible.

If some asshole stuffs flyers in every door in the neighborhood, everyone sees it and there is a much smaller pool of people capable of making it happen. If some asshole buys targeted ads, only a small fraction of people, none of whom are likely to be in a position to get the attention of a campaign, see them. Things that can be seen can be refuted, things that can't be seen just fester.
posted by wierdo at 1:54 PM on June 12 [5 favorites]


i don't understand why politics has to be fair.

I do! And whether it is or not or ever has been, it's absolutely the case that it should be fair, and not in the sense of giving "both sides" a 50% chance of success, but of allowing people to best vote for the interests that will improve their lives, the current world, and the world of future generations. Am I missing something? Is that controversial? And the right is better at it because they don't give a damn for anything except whatever, mathematically, delivers the most value to rich people, attracting power to money. They view it purely as cost/benefit analysis.
posted by JHarris at 3:09 PM on June 12 [8 favorites]


The right just wants to win and sees politics as the means to an end. That's how thrice divorced Donald Trump can be the flag carrier for The Party of Family Values with no one on that side blinking an eye. They get that it's all kayfabe. They think it's hilarious that Trump lied and cheated and stole and it made liberals mad. All that matters in the end is victory. They don't care if they're hypocritical. (See the Sartre quote about anti-Semites).

Many liberals deeply want to win fairly. To use a memorable turn of phrase, they are frequently the hapless coach pointing at the rulebook in the children's film while the golden retriever dunks on them over and over again, and are furious when the audience is cheering for the dog. It's basically The West Wing Brain poisoning where they're convinced a good speech that lays the smack down should drive the other side to quit in embarrassment.

The snag that catches the modern liberal is this: you cannot advocate for a position of "the system is pretty much fine, actually, it just needs some tinkering around the edges" while doing whatever you want, because if you're defending the rules as mostly fine, you have to play by them.

Post-Cold War there was a consensus that politics was played between the 40 yard lines, that is, that you could be a little left or a little right but all parties agreed on the broader points (deregulation good! Capitalism good! Government bad!). Dig around for 2000 election coverage and it was a meme that it didn't really matter who you voted for because Bush and Gore spent most of their time agreeing on the broad strokes, it was just small things no one really cared about that made up the differences.

The destruction of the Old Left by Reagan led to a kind of political PTSD among what I'll call the Pelosi Generation of Democrats. Clinton Third Wayism finished the job. This and the post Cold War consensus led to a faith in Reasonable Adult Compromise, where voters would reward you for clear headed negotiation and picking the moderate middle path.

If you read any of Obama's comments even after he was out of office, it's pretty clear he remains completely thrown that Republicans didn't Reasonable Adult Compromise with him. I blame the rampant case of The West Wing brainworms among him and his staff.

Republicans are wreckers of government and have been since Reagan, at least. Liberals defend government--the rules--and want to make more rules to make the system work better because they think it more or less works fine, it just needs some Reasonable Adult Tweaks here and there. So naturally they are willing to and must play by the rules.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 5:06 PM on June 12 [19 favorites]


It's just like how people who lie all the time assume you're lying all the time also, and thus are the least likely, out of anyone, to believe you when you tell them the truth. Thieves think everyone steals, all the time.

It's psychological projection. I think it's particular to right-wing types because there is, almost by definition, a lack of empathy with those who are not members of their in-group. They can't--or rather don't want to--imagine the experiences of the other, so their imagination is bound by what's in their own experience, which is often very bound and very limited indeed.

The Right-Wing Maxim of Psychological Projection: every accusation is a confession.
posted by zardoz at 5:51 PM on June 12 [7 favorites]


i don't understand why politics has to be fair.

Ideally, it's better to have a politician succeed in a fair system rather than a politician to succeed in a dirty one. Because the politician that succeeds in a dirty system will most likely continue the same behaviors and practices that they used to rise to the top. And the converse is true in that the politician that succeeds in a fair system will continue those same behaviors.
posted by FJT at 5:58 PM on June 12 [3 favorites]


Isn't it funny how it's almost always right-wingers who are claiming something is a "false flag" operation.

I don't know. I mostly encounter it in claims that [person making grossly antisemitic remark on Twitter] isn't actually a member of the Labour Party, or a pro-Palestinian activist, or whatever. The thing is, there are definitely antisemites who learned to mask their rhetoric in terms of being anti-Zionist: e.g., David Duke in the US, or the National Front in the UK. But when people use the term “false flag” nowadays they generally mean “we don't need to be concerned about group X, because we're not genuinely associated with them”. Historically it was exactly the opposite: captains had to beware of ships flying a false flag, more even than other enemy ships, because a ship flying a false flag could do immensely more damage. So calling something a false-flag operation shouldn't be synonymous with dismissing it: it should be a way of saying that it's very threatening, because it's actually a surreptitious attack.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:40 PM on June 12 [4 favorites]


"I think it's particular to right-wing types because there is, almost by definition, a lack of empathy with those who are not members of their in-group. They can't--or rather don't want to--imagine the experiences of the other, so their imagination is bound by what's in their own experience, which is often very bound and very limited indeed."

I am reminded of this 2018 quote from Frank Wilhoit:

"Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit:

There must be in-groups whom the law protectes [sic] but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect."
posted by bz at 11:05 AM on June 13 [9 favorites]


For me, the head-scratching part is that some point, some staffer was writing words that were presumably antithetical to their own beliefs, and never stopped to wonder if maybe, just maybe, they were the baddies.
posted by hoborg at 11:41 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


For me, the head-scratching part is that some point, some staffer was writing words that were presumably antithetical to their own beliefs, and never stopped to wonder if maybe, just maybe, they were the baddies.

James O’Keefe has never had any problem with that, and he’s far from alone.
posted by panglos at 12:05 PM on June 13 [2 favorites]


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