In Virginia House Race, Anonymous Attack Ads Pop Up on Facebook

A competitive race in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District has an alarming new element: anonymous attack ads on Facebook.

The ads, which appeared on a Facebook page called “Wacky Wexton Not,” were purchased by a critic of Jennifer Wexton, a Democrat trying to unseat Representative Barbara Comstock, a Republican. The race is one of the most closely watched in the country.

The ads paint Ms. Wexton as an “evil socialist,” with language and imagery not typically found in even the roughest campaigns. In one ad, which began running on Monday, Ms. Wexton is pictured next to an image of Nazi soldiers, and the ad’s text refers to her supporters as “modern-day brown shirts.” In another, which first ran this month, Ms. Wexton is compared to Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused the new Supreme Court justice, Brett M. Kavanaugh, of sexual assault. The image is captioned: “What’s the difference??? Nothing!! Both are liars.”

The person or group behind the ads is known to Facebook, but a mystery to the public. The funding disclaimer attached to the ads reads, simply, “Paid for by a freedom loving American Citizen exercising my natural law right, protected by the 1st Amendment and protected by the 2nd Amendment.” There is no other identifying information on the page.

Aaron Fritschner, a spokesman for the Wexton campaign, said, “The Wexton campaign is reviewing the bizarre, false ads unearthed by The New York Times and the page sponsoring them, which appears to be designed to spread disinformation, to determine whether they comply with applicable rules.”

Ms. Wexton’s opponent quickly denied any role. “We are not involved with that page in any way, shape or form,” said Susan Falconer, Ms. Comstock’s campaign manager. A Facebook message sent to the page was not returned.

Since 2016, when Facebook ads were used to spread disinformation and Russian propaganda ahead of the presidential election, the social network has clamped down on political advertisers. Users trying to buy political ads on Facebook are required to verify their identities, including proving that they have a mailing address in the United States. And all political ads are required to carry a “paid for by” disclaimer, detailing which person or organization purchased them.

But the owner of “Wacky Wexton Not” was able to remain anonymous by taking advantage of a loophole in Facebook’s policy. Once authorized to pay for political ads, buyers are able to fill the “paid for by” field with whatever text they want, even if it does not match the name of a Facebook user or page, and even if it is not an organization registered with the Federal Election Commission. Facebook does not reveal the identity of authorized ad buyers, or allow users to get more information about them.

A Facebook spokesman, Andy Stone, said that the ads on “Wacky Wexton Not” were allowed under the company’s current policies, but that the company was working on improving the disclosure feature. He said Facebook did not disclose the identity of the people authorized to buy political ads in order to protect those users’ privacy.

“One of the important aspects of the ad archive is the meaningful transparency it provides,” Mr. Stone said. “Now political and issue ads that run on Facebook are available and open for public scrutiny so that voters, journalists and researchers can all ask questions about who is behind those ads.”

Under current Federal Election Commission rules, political committees are required to disclose their digital ad spending in public filings, and include financial disclosures similar to those found on broadcast and print ads. But the commission has struggled to come up with definitive rules that would apply to all digital advertising platforms, including Facebook.

As Facebook pages go, “Wacky Wexton Not” is tiny — the page has only four followers, and has posted only around 40 times. The page has purchased about 30 political ads since August, most of which cost less than $100, and have been seen by fewer than 1,000 people.

According to Facebook’s political ad archive, which includes basic information about ad targeting, most of the ads purchased by the page were viewed by men in Virginia, although some women and residents of Maryland also viewed them.

Virginia’s 10th District, which has a larger than average number of college graduates and a large immigrant population, is a top target for Democrats as they aim to take back control of the House.

Most polls have Ms. Wexton solidly in the lead, and the Cook Political Report, an independent political analyst, has rated the race “lean Democratic.”

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