A few weeks ago, Bloomberg published a damning piece about how the DCI Group, a D.C.-based consulting firm, creates phony echo chambers to help push its clients’ interests. For example, it created a ‘coalition’ of groups to support its campaign against Argentina on behalf of the country’s Wall Street bondholders, who wanted their money back. (The coalition included some groups that didn’t know they were in the coalition.)
This is a normal practice in Washington, as normal as going to Le Diplomate or think tank events on civility featuring war criminals. It’s called astroturfing: the practice of creating the impression of widespread support for an issue on behalf of a narrow subset of interests, or even one individual, by creating fake or semi-fake organizations, petitions, rallies—whatever makes it seem like the activity isn’t coming from its true source. The Tea Party movement was full of examples of this activity.
Astroturfing is easier now than ever before, and also easier than ever to conceal. It’s very easy to set up a website, a Facebook page, or just a Twitter account, and pose as a Real Organization that does the things legitimate public policy organizations do: getting quoted in the news, releasing reports, generally doing actual activities to study public policy (even if those organizations are themselves often corrupt).
It also turns out to be even easier than I thought to do this on Twitter. Over the past year or so, Twitter users have noticed at least two bizarre ad campaigns that don’t link to a real Twitter account, or have any presence on the web at all: Heartland Priorities and the Middle America Project. Using a Twitter Ads feature that allows advertisers to create promoted tweets that aren’t linked to any permanent profile, these fake organizations are running ads on a number of important public policy issues. Thanks to Twitter’s complete lack of transparency (and refusal to comment for this story), we have no idea who they are.
Heartland Priorities has run a few of these mystery ads, all about Scott Pruitt. A friend sent me these examples that appeared on his feed: (My texts with friends are normal and cool.)
The ads seem to have appeared around November last year.
There is a Heartland Priorities based in Missouri. Its founder told me that it has nothing to do with these ads; he works on marijuana and criminal justice reform. As far as I can tell, the Heartland Priorities of this Twitter ad simply doesn’t exist. There is no website, nothing in corporate records (except the other Heartland Priorities), no nonprofit 990 forms on file with the IRS. So whoever runs this decided it would be better—more significant, more persuasive—to create a fake group with a convincing name, Heartland Priorities, instead of buying these ads as Jim The Guy Who Hates Scott Pruitt—or, more likely, not a guy, but a lobbying, consulting, or advocacy organization, or someone in their employ.
Stranger still are the Twitter ads run by the so-called Middle America Project. Like Heartland Priorities, the Middle America Project ads are just links to news articles, with a few words of commentary. But its ads take on a lot of different causes: pro-immigration, pro-NAFTA, anti-drug importation.
Many Twitter users have noted their ads on net neutrality.
One ad, for example, says broadband investment will go up without net neutrality in the way (which is, by the way, extremely misleading). It also ran an ad promoting an article about the lack of regulation and concentration of power in the tech industry, and another highlighting a piece about Google’s lobbying spending. (In general, the tech industry largely supports net neutrality, while the cable industry has strongly opposes it.)
The organization, or whatever it is, also seems concerned with defending conservative Democrats. One ad complained about attacking vulnerable Democrats, decreeing it a “#wasteoftime,” according to a tweet from April last year.
While another ad contained a link to a list of “things progressives should do before primarying Joe Manchin”:
Its views on tax policy seem to be mixed. One ad posted a Vox article on how the Republican tax plan would raise taxes on families who adopt children, but another, in August 2017, tweeted a Bloomberg piece saying there’s “a lot to like about cutting corporate taxes.”
So, who is Middle America Project, and what do they want? I have absolutely no idea.
There are two Middle America Projects to be found in corporate records: Middle America Project LLC, founded on March 30, 2017, and Middle America Project, Inc, founded on May 12, 2017. Both were registered in Delaware by Corporation Service Company, which means those records tell us nothing about who actually runs the organization; this is perfectly legal in Delaware and a few other states.
Other than these promoted tweets, that is the only record of Middle America Project I can find, and it tells us nothing. They have no website, meaning no contact information, no list of staffers, no mission statement. There’s no Twitter account associated with the tweets. The corporate records are anonymous. It could be anyone. It could be some oddball individual who’s decided he wants to run Twitter ads as a fake organization called Middle America Project just to share interesting links that he likes. Or, it could be a (very lame, low-rent) astroturfing effort by an existing organization, one that loves NAFTA and opposes net neutrality and thinks everyone should stop being mean to conservative Democrats.
Astroturfing is a very useful technique for lobbyists, advocacy groups, Koch brothers types, corporations, and other slimy creatures of the night that seek to influence public policy. By creating the impression of broad popular support, the true aims and motivations of the organization or individuals behind the campaign are obscured. If you’re a billionaire and you want some arcane tax repealed because it’ll save you, personally, millions of dollars, that alone doesn’t make for a particularly compelling public-facing argument. But if you can magic up a few thousand Real Americans who also appear to want the tax repealed, it doesn’t just obscure your motives, it gives lawmakers cover to support something that primarily just benefits you, the rich person.
But these odd Twitter ads aren’t even really astroturfing, in the traditional sense of the word. The campaign isn’t designed to create the impression of mass grassroots or academic support for some issue. Not only is there no faked petition or list of supporting organizations, there isn’t even a website, or an organization to speak of. It certainly isn’t as significant as, for example, what DCI did with its Argentina-bashing campaign, which Bloomberg reported on. That was at least an echo chamber with real human voices, testifying to Congress and dressing up as a big rat. This is just bizarre Twitter ads linking to news stories. In the old days, you had to at least buy a website or get a PO box address to astroturf. Now, you just need a logo and a generic name, and you too can play at being a public policy organization.
And Twitter makes this very easy. It has a feature called Ads Without Profiles, which allows brands to advertise without actually having a Twitter account. It is sometimes used for, shall we say, “legitimate” advertising purposes—HBO used it to promote Silicon Valley, for example. A Twitter Ads pamphlet, posted on the website of the health marketing company Klick, boasts “Brand Safety” as a benefit of this feature, because users can’t interact with the post—nasty Twitter users can’t own you and your stupid ads, basically, thus protecting the Brand. The feature isn’t available by default on Twitter’s ad dashboard. Twitter has to specifically grant access.
So, someone has signed up for Twitter Ads posing as a completely made-up organization, or Twitter has decided that whoever is pretending to be the Middle America Project is allowed to pose as a completely made-up organization on their feed. Does that matter to them, at all? How hard would it be for a foreign government interested in influencing American democracy to purchase ads posing as a fake American public policy organization and promoting a policy goal, or attacking politicians? Much has been made of Twitter’s fake Russian profiles and “bots,” but is anything being done to prevent Russia, or any nefarious actor, from using these totally anonymous ads in misinformation or propaganda campaigns? For that matter, what prevents Coke from creating anonymous ads pretending to be concerned beverage scientists warning users that Pepsi contains unacceptably high levels of rat urine?
Unfortunately, we can’t get any answers on these questions from Twitter. The company declined to comment for this story. Instead, they pointed us to their new rules for political ad disclosure, which promise “New Transparency For Ads On Twitter.” Of course, these rules wouldn’t apply to many of these mystery tweets, because they apply only to ads referring to “a clearly identified candidate (or party associated with that candidate) for any elected office.”
And because neither Heartland Priorities nor Middle America Project actually has a Twitter account or a website, we are stuck with no way of knowing the extent of their campaign, what their policy goals actually are, or whether they’re the product of one person or a huge organization. They exist only in the Twitter ad world, and Twitter won’t tell us anything about them. The only evidence we have of their existence is tweeted screenshots of their ads, which surely only represent a small fraction of the actual number of ads served. Most people won’t tweet about it when they get an ad like that. Many might not even notice that it’s an ad.
In October, Twitter announced it would create a new “transparency center,” promising, “in the coming weeks,” to give users the ability to “see who had created an ad, how long an ad had been running and how the ad was targeted toward a specific user.” It’s now almost four months later, and still no transparency center. It’s hard to see how any transparency promises square with Twitter’s Ads Without Profiles option, which seems designed to evade transparency.
There are, of course, no laws that compel Twitter to release any information at all about people or organizations running ads on their service posing as fake organizations. That, in America, is perfectly fine. All we can do is ask if they know who these organizations are, and if they’d tell us if they did.
Don’t hold your breath.