As government officials consider implementing vote-by-mail for the 2020 election because of the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump is using Facebook and Instagram ads to ramp up false allegations of voter fraud. These allegations compound years of lies from Trump and his allies in right-wing media repeating false claims of widespread voter fraud.
Facebook’s ad policy formerly banned “misleading or false” information, but the platform narrowed its policy in October 2019, prohibiting only those “ads that include claims debunked by third-party fact checkers” and even exempting ads from politicians from this fact-checking. This policy has faced a lot of criticism, but Facebook has only doubled down as it continues to let Trump run misleading ads against his critics and opponents.
Some of the Trump campaign’s latest ads, which started running on both Facebook and Instagram on May 18, falsely claim that the “Radical Left is trying to STEAL THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION OF OUR LIVES.” Using the Dewey Square Adwatch toolset to analyze Facebook Ad data, Media Matters found at least 529 of these ads, and 267 of them -- more than half -- make various other false accusations against Democrats, including that they are “stuffing the ballot boxes with FAKE and FRAUDULENT votes.” These ads were all paid for by Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., and they are being advertised by Donald J. Trump, Mike Pence, and Team Trump’s Facebook pages. The ads, which have been running on Facebook for less than two full days, have the potential to reach millions of people through the social media platform. (At time of publication, 525 of the ads are currently active, out of which at least 15 ads are appearing as blank in the Facebook Ad Library.)
Trump and his allies in right-wing media have repeatedly made unsubstantiated accusations of voter fraud for years in an attempt to promote voter ID laws and restrict voting access for minorities. In fact, many studies have debunked claims of widespread voter fraud, including Trump’s own commission. And, the most high-profile recent case of such fraud was committed by a Republican operative, who collected and altered absentee ballots during the 2018 House election for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.
On April 7, Trump called mail ballots “corrupt,” saying, “People cheat. Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they’re cheaters.” Fact-checkers labeled these claims as misinformation. Nonetheless, Trump’s statements have been supported by right-wing media outlets claiming there are flaws in a mail-in system, such as ballots getting lost in the mail, and right-wing figures saying that Democrats want to cheat and will use “ballot harvesting.” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton, who frequently spreads disinformation about voter fraud, has even claimed that “the Left is taking advantage of #Coronavirus to push ‘vote by mail.’”
Even though Facebook claims that its policies are “helping to protect the 2020 US elections,” the social media platform is still earning revenue on Trump’s ads that promote his right-wing misinformation about voter fraud.