Attention, voters: If, while scrolling Facebook today, you happen to see a strange meme of Bernie Sanders commanding you to embrace Democratic Socialism or "go drink from a dirty river," please be advised that this message has not been sanctioned by the Senator himself. It is likely a trap. Report it!
According to a report by Vice News and ProPublica, a Facebook group called America Progress Now [APN]—erroneously using a Bronx address up until the outlets questioned its validity—is illegally co-opting images of prominent progressive candidates in a push to get liberals to vote for Green Party candidates, not Democrats.
It's not immediately clear who's behind APN: Reporters dispatched to investigate the group's alleged location, 605 East 132nd Street in the Bronx, could not find a single person in the building who had heard of the group. Even the landlord, Stephen Rosenfeld, said he had no idea who these people were. When the outlets asked APN about its apparently fraudulent headquarters, the address conveniently disappeared, without anyone answering questions about this shadowy meme campaign.
"America Progress Now" reportedly has seven close Congressional races, many of which take place in the Midwest, in its crosshairs. It has plastered the images of Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, likely to become the youngest woman elected to Congress, on ads that encourage readers not to "vote for a party," but to "vote for Progressive values," specifically those espoused by "third party" candidates. Without specifically saying that these politicians endorse America Progress Now, the group's content heavily suggests that they approve the message.
According to Vice, however, Sanders's Senate office asked Facebook to remove the ads, while Marcia Squier—a Michigan Senate candidate whose face appears again and again on the page—commented on one post demanding that APN "cease and desist NOW."
"This site is NOT authorized to make up quotes I never said or run ads on my behalf," she wrote. And yet, even though APN has not registered with the Federal Election Commission—as law requires the group to do, because it allegedly spent $1,000 on ads intended to influence an election—Facebook declined to take down the ads.
In a post-Russian meddling world (just kidding, Facebook just admitted that foreign actors have been using the site to insert themselves into the midterms), Facebook requires advertises to provide proof of U.S. residency and a disclaimer revealing who paid for the message. The social media company reportedly told Vice and ProPublica that its investigation into APN turned up no violations of that policy, and that APN provided either an Employer Identification Number or an FEC committee ID. The "paid for" explanation is something Facebook seems to accept on good faith, however, having previously admitted to ProPublica that it can't confirm the legitimacy of every paid advertisement on its platform.
"We asked Facebook to remove the ad last week because it is clearly a malicious attempt to deceive voters," Josh Miller-Lewis, a Sanders spokesperson, told the outlets. "It is deeply troubling that after Facebook was used in similar ways by foreign actors in 2016 to swing the election, the company still refuses to act to combat deceptive and misleading ads run by anonymous organizations."
Gothamist messaged APN to ask if it planned to drop the contested ads, and whether or not the group (or the individual, or the three toddlers in a trench coat) running the page had registered with the FEC. We have also reached out to Facebook to ask what gives. We will update if we hear back, although that seems unlikely. Still, as voters nationwide head to the polls, and possibly seek out last-minute information to shore up their choices, it's perhaps worth revisiting this quick tutorial on how to identify fake news. Let's no get fooled again, friends.