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Facebook Dings Epoch Times For Allegedly Skirting Rules For Political Ads

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Chris White Tech Reporter
  • Facebook says it banned The Epoch Times from buying advertisements after reports showed the outlet used sock puppet accounts to purchase a series of pricey ads supporting President Donald Trump.
  • The Epoch Times’s publisher Stephen Gregory pans reports suggesting the outlet used various “sock companies” to conceal its role purchasing more than $1 million in Trump ads.
  • Gregory says the reports are misrepresenting the outlet’s advertising techniques. He says many outlets use similar tools to gain subscribers and promote their material.

Facebook banned The Epoch Times from future advertising on its platform after reports showed the media outlet broke the company’s rules when it allegedly used sock puppet accounts to purchase ads that criticized coverage from wider media and implored viewers to subscribe to Epoch Times instead.

The move came after an Aug. 20 NBC report suggested the outlet shifted its spending recently to conceal $2 million of ads that touted President Donald Trump’s frequent sharing of Epoch Times links and, from NBC’s point of view, mimicked Trump talking points on the credibility of media. The Epoch Times published ads that appeared under page names such as “Honest Paper” and “Pure American Journalism,” which allowed the outlet to avoid Facebook’s rules, reports show.

Neither “Honest Paper” nor “Perpetual Market,” another page the outlet used, list Epoch Times as its page owner.

The Epoch Times spent more than $1 million on nine ad buys supporting the president, among a host of conspiracy theories, NBC reported. The ad buy was more than presidential candidates Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts spent on Facebook over a three-month period of time, OZY reporter Nicholas Fouriezos noted in a pair of Aug. 22 tweets.

Stephen Gregory, publisher of Epoch Times, disputed NBC’s characterization of the ads.

“Despite a vast ‘dark money’ political conspiracy alleged in NBC News reporting, the reality is much simpler … Without exception, these ads are overtly Epoch Times advertisements for our subscriptions,” he wrote in a rebuttal post on Epoch Times.

Ads reviewed by The Daily Caller News Foundation all showed an Epoch Times watermark and contained direct appeals to subscribe to their paper.

“There is no secret there, since it’s all public,” Gregory wrote.

US President Donald Trump attends the first working session of the G7 Summit on August 25, 2019 in Biarritz, France. (Jeff J Mitchell - Pool /Getty Images)

US President Donald Trump attends the first working session of the G7 Summit on August 25, 2019 in Biarritz, France. (Jeff J Mitchell – Pool /Getty Images)

Facebook tells a different story, and its own publicly available ad tracker shows Epoch Times ads placed on pages without explicitly linking back to the paper itself.

“Over the past year we removed accounts associated with the Epoch Times for violating our ad policies, including trying to get around our review systems,” a Facebook representative told reporters Thursday. “We acted on additional accounts today and they are no longer able to advertise with us.”

Facebook has not responded to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment about the nature of the ads and whether they bear similarity to those Russian trolls produced before the 2016 election. (RELATED: Here’s The Twist Facebook Says Russia Is Putting On A Revamped Misinformation Campaign)

The NBC News report laid out how The Epoch Times evolved from a nonprofit backed by a Chinese-American religious movement’s anti-communism message into an obscure conservative outlet. The outlet remained outside mainstream conservative circles because it focused on specific political issues regarding China, the report noted.

NBC reporter Brandy Zadrozny, who co-authored the NBC News article, said in a series of Aug. 22 tweets that “we contacted The Epoch Times to ask about the >$1 million they had spent on pro-Trump, conspiracy-embracing ads. In July, they stopped running ads under their actual names.”

The company then began creating new “sock companies that claim to pay for the ads,” she added. Gregory issued a statement to NBC stating that the report “grossly misrepresents” the outlet’s advertising.

“Facebook has specific rules for advertising that require everyone — including publishers like The Epoch Times — to label content as political advertising if it touches on social issues or politics, something some news content naturally does,” he noted in a statement on the outlet’s website.

Gregory added: “Many other media run advertising campaigns for their content and products in the same category on Facebook.”

Facebook, for its part, has rolled out new rules to deal with foreign groups using what appear to be sock puppet accounts to hide their connections with advertisement campaigns — mostly to address grievances that lax ad policies allegedly enabled Russian operatives to influence the American electorate. Issue is, these rules apply to everyone, even American media companies like the New York Times, CNN, and Vox Media. (RELATED: Democratic Operatives Used Misleading Facebook Pages To Suppress GOP Turnout In Midterms)

A broadcast of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying on Capital Hill is televised on the floor at the closing bell of the Dow Industrial Average at the New York Stock Exchange on April 10, 2018 in New York. / AFP PHOTO / Bryan R. Smith (Photo credit should read BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images)

A broadcast of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying on Capital Hill is televised on the floor at the closing bell of the Dow Industrial Average at the New York Stock Exchange on April 10, 2018 in New York. (BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images)

Reports from January show that Russia might be using its state-run media to create fake posts that appear to emanate from real newsrooms elsewhere. The company dinged 364 pages and accounts from the Baltics, central Asia, the Caucasus and other countries in central and Eastern Europe.

The groups responsible for the pages also spent $135,000 on ads, which were paid for in euros, rubles and U.S. dollars. Facebook also claimed it nixed pages from a separate campaign originating from Russia and Ukraine. The company removed 26 pages, 77 accounts and four groups on the platform, as well as 41 accounts on Instagram.

Those behind the campaign bought around $25,000 in ads on Facebook and Instagram that were paid for in rubles. Democratic operatives used a series of advertisements before the 2018 midterm elections to troll conservative voters inside Alabama.

American Engagement Technologies (AET), a company founded by former Obama administration official Mikey Dickerson, bought ads for two Facebook pages, “The Daily Real” and “Today’s Nation,” encouraging Republican voters in Alabama to stay home in the midterm elections, Facebook’s ad archives show.

The pages were designed to create the impression that they were operated by frustrated conservatives.

Editor’s Note: This post was updated to add clarity to the dispute between NBC News and Epoch Times. Additional information was included about Facebook’s new political ad rules, along with additional statements from Epoch Times Publisher Stephen Gregory.

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