Political ads for Montana’s 2020 gubernatorial race have appeared on Facebook at least 760,000 times since the start of the year. Montana Public Radio found nearly all of the candidates running for office didn’t follow state rules for disclosing details about those ads to the public.
Social media advertising offers a large and sophisticated way for politicians and political activists to target and influence voters. In recent elections cycles, much of that machine-optimized political speech is happening on Facebook.
That speech can include notices for upcoming events, attacks on political opponents, or videos like Republican Albert Olszewski’s ad where he asks voters to volunteer as he stands in a field shooting a rifle.
Using Facebook’s Ad Library, MTPR reviewed each political Facebook ad bought by Montana gubernatorial race candidates from January through September of 2019.
There were more than 120 ads. Demographic information about the people it was shown to - including age, gender and the state they live in, was available for each one.
MTPR’s review showed that when it came time for candidates to publicly report required details about spending on those ads using required disclosure forms, most didn’t. Jeff Mangan, Montana’s commissioner of political practices, said political ads need to be reported.
“We need to continue to remind candidates that if they’re spending money, if they’re having a paid political ad, a paid political communication, on any medium they need to report it as the law and the rules of Montana state,” he said.
After MTPR reached out to Commissioner Mangan’s office about the discrepancy in Facebook ad spending, he sent a memo to all political candidates in Montana. The memo reminded them “they have the responsibility and obligation to understand and comply with all Montana campaign finance laws.” It also requests candidates send amended disclosure forms that include all social media advertising expenditures.
“Facebook and social media advertisement, banner ads through Google, are a fairly new communication in Montana's political scene, and we just need to do a better job of reaching out to those candidates and making sure they understand what needs to be reported," Mangan said.
He said state law requires candidates publicly report their social media spending just like they’d disclose buying TV, radio or print advertisements. The law requires candidates to say when and where the ad was shown and a brief summary of what ad said.
Lee Banville is a University of Montana journalism professor and the author of Covering American Politics in the 21st Century. He said the main point behind requirements on political advertising disclosure is to let voters know how candidates are trying to influence them. But he says not all ads are the same.
“To simply call something, ‘Oh, I’m spending money on advertising,’ at this day and age, is not really much disclosure,” Banville said. “Because if you’re putting an ad in a newspaper, that is very different than using our psychometric data to specifically tailor a message that’s there to influence me in a much more profound way.”
Facebook ads are shown to users based on pages or friends they like, information on their Facebook or Instagram profiles, and the location they connect to the internet from. Ads also target users based on other websites they visit or shop on.
“That is a powerful piece of media,” Banville said. “That is a powerful piece of political communication. And to say that’s the same as printing a poster that we’re going to stick on a wall somewhere, that someone may or may not see, to make those equal is to really ignore the last decade of history.”
Banville said the way Montana’s campaign disclosure policy treats all ads the same, regardless of platform, is common across the country.
Political Practices Commissioner Jeff Mangan said he’s be open to seeing that change.
“Personally, I’m not a fan of microtargeting at all, Mangan says, "and hopefully the Legislature and others will take a look at that in future sessions," he said. "But today, they just have to report how much money they’re spending on the ads, the time period it ran and detail as far as what the ad was about.”
MTPR’s review found gubernatorial candidates from the Republican and Democratic failed to properly disclose details Facebook ad spending. That includes the campaigns of Democrats Mike Cooney and Casey Schreiner, as well as campaigns for Republicans Greg Gianforte, Tim Fox and Albert Olszewski.
The Cooney and Olszewski campaigns told MTPR they were working with the political practices to update their disclosure forms.
The Fox campaigns said it was already fully reporting its expenses. But that didn't line up with the state's log of reports.
The other campaigns didn't respond to MTPR's request for comment.
Democrat Reilly Neil has not run any Facebook ads, according to the company. Democrat Whitney Williams is posting ads to Facebook, but she joined the race after the most recent campaign finance report was due.
Facebook archives don't show any advertisements bought by Libertarian Ron Vandevender.
Since MTPR started its reporting, campaigns have provided additional information in their public disclosure forms about their political Facebook activity.
See the Facebook ads bought by Montana candidates along with the amounts spent.