Photo: Getty

A ProPublica story out today details how a dozen ad campaigns on Facebook appear to have concealed their true sponsors, with several being sponsored by front groups for oil interests. A front group tied to American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, itself a trade association for companies like ExxonMobil and BP, ran $20,000 worth of ads on Facebook with the tag “paid for by Energy4US” without ever disclosing the true sponsor of the ads.

These “faux groups with public-spirited names,” as ProPublica described them, are a classic astroturfing technique, one we’ve written about before. Big companies with money to spend know that opposition to strict emission standards, for example, sounds a lot less legitimate coming from ExxonMobil than it does from an innocuously-sounding group posing as a public interest organization.

That’s how the American Petroleum Institute came to create Energy Citizens, a “name that API began using in 2009 to organize an ostensible grassroots movement against limits on emissions linked to climate change,” according to the site, which spent $260,000 on Facebook ads promoting offshore drilling and the Keystone pipeline. The ads reportedly targeted users interested in Donald Trump or Sean Hannity. Haha cool, we live in Hell.

Why does Facebook allow this? The company has yet to respond to a Splinter request for comment; we’ll update if they do. But it’s easy to imagine that a big reason might be that it would involve a little work—and perhaps make issue advertising less profitable for Facebook—to implement steps that would prevent this kind of shell game being played on their platform.

That game is played all too easily. A group that wasn’t included in ProPublica’s story, the Main Street Investors Coalition, is engaged in the same practice. That group has run roughly 290 ads on Facebook this year, per the site’s transparency center. The ads are very stupid.

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Screenshot: Facebook
Screenshot: Facebook

Spooooky.

The Main Street Investors Coalition sounds all fuzzy and warm—it’s on Main Street, just like the coffee shop and your mom’s favorite bakery!—but it isn’t. As the New York Times reported in July, it’s a front group for “big business interests that want to diminish the ability of pension funds and large 401(k) plans—where most little guys keep their money—to influence certain corporate governance issues.”

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Chief among those is the National Association of Manufacturers. According to their website, their other “partners” include the 60 Plus Association, a well-funded conservative group with ties to the Koch network.

One of the groups mentioned in the ProPublica story also ran ads on Twitter in the last week, which is as far back as Twitter’s transparency center goes. Per ProPublica, Connect Americans Now is a Microsoft front group, which Microsoft now admits:

Connect Americans Now, which pushes for improved access to high-speed internet in rural areas, is a “Microsoft-supported community,” Zachary Cikanek, a Connect Americans Now spokesman, said. “In future ads we are going to go beyond what is required” and identify Microsoft’s role.

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That group has run eight ads over the last seven days on Twitter. It’s pushing for unlicensed “white space” in TV broadcast channels to be made available for wifi signals, which they’re spinning as a push to make the internet more accessible to rural Americans. This effort is strongly opposed by TV broadcasters: The National Association of Broadcasters told GovTech in January that it was “the height of arrogance for Microsoft, a $540 billion company, to demand free, unlicensed spectrum after refusing to bid on broadcast TV airwaves.”

Neither side is particularly sympathetic in this fight—it’s very niche, a fight over territory where profit can be extracted, with lower stakes for the rest of us. But sometimes these low-profile wars that target very specific policymakers in DC aren’t being fought over boring shit like TV white space. The fact that Microsoft is able to pay for undisclosed ads on Twitter and Facebook by funneling that money through a front group means that pharmaceutical companies could do the same thing.

In fact, they do.

The Alliance for Patient Access is a nonprofit that positions itself as “a national network of physicians dedicated to ensuring patient access to approved therapies and appropriate clinical care.” Advocating for patient “access” to drugs sounds good, but it doesn’t do that by pushing for, say, single payer or lowering drugs’ list prices. It does this by attacking other healthcare players, like health insurance companies and their practice of prior authorization, or ICER, the international body that determines drugs’ effectiveness. (Drug companies make more money if they can sell all the drugs they want, not just the ones that actually work best.)

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Why do they do this? AFPA admits that “most of its money comes from the drug industry.” Its list of members, published in August, included many of the biggest pharmaceutical companies, among them Amgen, Pfizer, and GlaxoSmithKline. It does not disclose exact figures for how much those companies give, nor is it required to by law. But it seems fair to draw a connection between its drug industry funding and its push for patient “access” to drugs, in ways that curiously don’t touch on the massive prices charged by the companies in the first place.

AFPA also runs ads on Twitter and Facebook, with no mention of its industry funding. Facebook’s ad archive has 48 paid ads from AFPA this year, and more than 20 Twitter ads in just the last week. As with Microsoft’s rural broadband ads, they’re all things that sound fine and good: patient access! Lowering co-pays! But they take on a very different meaning when you know who’s actually funding them. If a group is attacking ICER, I want to know what financial interest they might have in doing so before I can judge whether or not to take them seriously, and doubly so before policymakers take them seriously. Democracy withers without this sort of transparency.

This is partly a Facebook and Twitter problem and partly an America problem. Big corporations have been setting up front groups to launder their ideas for years, long before social media. It is legal and very, very normal in Washington. But it does a massive disservice to the public who see these ads not to tell them the financial interests behind them. That applies to sketchy op-eds in the media as much as it does to Facebook ads.

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Facebook and Twitter could implement stronger tools, perhaps by forcing disclosure of groups’ major sponsors. But we have a bigger problem: The existence of the astroturfing industry, with thousands of people in Washington and around the country (but mostly Washington) who are paid six-figure salaries by bad companies to promote their bad policy priorities. There is an entire industry of people willing to act as the respectable face of deeply un-respectable companies, and they largely get away with it, in part because of our laughable nonprofit transparency laws.

America does not need this industry. We do not need legions of suits paid to lie on behalf of the world’s richest corporations. If you are reading this and this is your job: Quit. Go do something else, anything else. You are not a good person if you don’t.