Why you should care
These shadow players are influencing the election — whether regulators like it or not.
Trumpy Bear seems too absurd to be true. An ad hawking the teddy bear — complete with a comb-over, red tie and an American flag blanket zipped into its stuffing — broke the internet last November after airing on a local Fox affiliate. It was seen millions of times, seemingly the perfect Christmas gift for the president’s backers and the perfect gag gift for his detractors.
As fact-checking website Snopes tweeted: “Yes, it’s real. No, we don’t know why.” And we still don’t know for sure. While news reports show Trumpy Bear to be the invention of a New Jersey woman sold by a Dallas direct response marketing company, its creators are not required to disclose their investors.
In fact, the seemingly innocuous teddy bear points to a more troublesome trend emerging in American politics: the rise of news outlets and for-profit companies spending millions of dollars on advertisements and products that mimic political messaging without having to report who is bankrolling their efforts.
Look at the top 100 spenders on political or social issue–related ads on Facebook — the world’s second-largest advertising platform — over the past three months. There are some unsurprising names at the top: Donald Trump, Tom Steyer, Kirsten Gillibrand and Bernie Sanders, among others. But go farther down the list and you’ll find a host of more unlikely entrants.
- No. 25, The Epoch Times: a New York–based media outlet associated with the Falun Gong spiritual group that, from mid-June to mid-August, pumped $764,240 into ads that praise Trump and criticize Democrats.
- No. 27, OuterGoods, LLC: a Bellingham, Washington–based retailer that spent $714,933 — across two separate Facebook pages, “Conservative Gear” and “45th President Donald J. Trump” — advertising Trump 2020 branded hats and T-shirts.
- No. 64, Printed Kicks: a Nevada-based, family-owned business that promises to make as much of its products as it can in America spent $322,488 on pro-Trump shirts, shoes, tumblers and decals.
- No. 85, Family Protection Association: a Las Vegas–based company that spent $232,511 selling clothing with conservative talking points, including a T-shirt that read “United States of America: Love it or Leave it” just three weeks after Trump said of four Democratic congresswoman: “You know what, if they don’t love it, tell ’em to leave it.”
These amounts eclipse the total spending of some Democratic presidential candidates: At No. 37, Kamala Harris spent $361,905; Beto O’Rourke, No. 71, paid $283,468 during that time period. And those are just the headliners. Plenty of others remain, including No. 104 FamTeeWorld’s “Keep America Great” page and No. 111 Fully Stitched’s pro-Trump “America We Grow Heroes” page — both companies spent nearly $200,000 in advertising.
If I’m a donor, I can kill two birds with one stone: I’m selling merch and helping advance the message of the candidate I back.
Matt Compton, director of advocacy and engagement, Blue State Digital
For the moment, there are few left-leaning equivalents. Top pro-Democrat issue-based ad spenders such as Planned Parenthood, Sandy Hook Promise and the Democratic Governors Association are nonprofits, required to disclose whom they receive funding from and how they choose to spend that money. But Tara McGowan, founder of digital progressive nonprofit Acronym, is toying with the idea of creating one, tentatively called “Rogue Swag.” It’s likely only a matter of time, she suggests, before “a few pop up” on the left.
There’s a reason the political messaging from these companies works. “When you are in somebody’s face, and you’re appealing to their emotions, you get them to take an action,” says Scott Tranter, co-founder of 0ptimus data firm and former data science director for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.
The problem with such companies spending hundreds of thousands in Facebook ads is that they often serve as free advertising advancing the messages of political campaigns without having to disclose who is funding their operations. Some political strategists worry that millionaires could back such for-profit companies and support their pet causes through selling products like Trumpy Bear — the company behind the bear did not return our request for comment — while shielding their involvement from public scrutiny.
“There are companies from all political sides that are basically masquerading as for-profit companies so they can get around the anonymity piece,” says Tranter, who notes that donors spend more in taxes for the privilege. “Their argument is: ‘Hey, I’m paying for it.’”
There are incentives to avoiding the public eye: Look at the boycotts of Equinox Gym and SoulCycle after it was revealed that the owner of their parent company, Stephen Ross, had hosted a Trump fundraiser. Plus, there is a chance for profit. “If I’m a donor, I can kill two birds with one stone: I’m selling merch and helping advance the message of the candidate I back,” says Matt Compton, director of advocacy and engagement at left-leaning creative and tech agency Blue State Digital.
The line blurs when donors can essentially put advertising “next to this viral video, and real products,” Compton says, but it gets even messier with unapologetically partisan media companies. “They exist in this gray space, between campaigns and what campaign operations are subject to and what everyone else is allowed to do on the internet,” Compton explains.
In Illinois during the 2016 election, more than 20 outlets — there are now 29 — calling themselves newspapers under the company name Local Government Information Services blurred the line between legitimate news and conservative propaganda (before then, they pushed those ideas over Facebook). New York–based Epoch Times insists it’s “nonpartisan,” but its Facebook ads consistently support Trump and bash his critics. At least two of its ads highlight how Trump has tweeted its stories, and have speculated whether Epoch Times is the president’s “new favorite paper.”
The publisher of its U.S. editions, Stephen Gregory, told OZY that “The Epoch Times has not received funds from any political party, PAC or candidate for campaign advertisements to appear on Facebook.” The newspaper, he added, “has not made any payments to Facebook for campaign advertisements on behalf of a candidate, and has not acted in cooperation, consultation or concert with or at the request or suggestion of any candidate in connection with advertisements placed on Facebook.”
So funny story: the @EpochTimes, which was the subject of a deep-dive by @BrandyZadrozny and @oneunderscore__ calling it Trump's biggest advocate this week, has shifted its online FB spending to another page that conceals its involvement.— Nicholas Fouriezos (@nick4iezos) August 22, 2019
More recently, at least 20 Sinclair Broadcast Group networks ran ads on their websites selling a “Keep America Great” hat that linked directly to the campaign’s online store. “These are political action committees that are thinly masquerading as media companies,” says former Obama campaigner Shomik Dutta, co-founder of campaign tech incubator Higher Ground Labs.
Democrats are trying to catch up. New Media Ventures is working to push left-leaning narrative shapers like the African American millennial site Blavity. Progressive outlet One Illinois emerged to combat the Local Government Information Services papers, while one could argue that trendy Facebook video outlets like NowThis are putting their thumb on the scale for progressives.
In July, Acronym announced it was investing more than $1 million in Virginia local news site The Dogwood. Through its subsidiary partner FWIW Media, Acronym has spent more money on Facebook in Virginia than any other outside group, at $131,000 since March 23. And it has plans to put cash behind outlets in swing states like Arizona, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
There are more stringent disclosure requirements for traditional mediums like television and radio. But because much of this action is happening online, it’s operating in a digital Wild West. Ann Ravel, former chair of the Federal Election Commission, resigned in 2017 out of frustration with the organization’s inability to regulate the torrent of potentially illegal ads online. “One of the real flaws in our laws is the issue of what is a ‘campaign’ communication versus what is an issue ad,” she says. Until those concerns are resolved, Trumpy Bear isn’t just a goofy internet meme; he is a cuddly threat to democratic transparency.