Facebook Ads Offer Peek at Looming Supreme Court Fight

The U.S. Supreme Court justices soon after Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch joined in 2017.

Even before President Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee is announced, a fight over the choice is raging on social media.

In the days since Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said he would retire, partisan groups have turned to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks with political ads. Some of the ads urge voters to pressure their senators to block or speed the confirmation process for Mr. Trump’s eventual nominee. Others oppose allowing specific jurists to fill the vacant seat.

Judicial Crisis Network, an organization that promotes conservative judicial nominees, announced last week that it would spend more than $1 million to support Mr. Trump’s nominee. So far, the group has spent as much as $140,000 on a series of nearly two dozen Facebook ads. Many of the Facebook ads are targeted at users in North Dakota, Indiana and West Virginia, all red states with vulnerable Democratic senators who are up for re-election this year.

The ads, which also appeared on Twitter, show a 30-second video with darkened images of Democratic lawmakers interspersed with bright images of Justice Neil Gorsuch.


“Extremists will lie and attack the nominee,” the ad’s narrator says. “But don’t be fooled: President Trump’s list includes the best of the best, and with your help, America will get another star on the Supreme Court.”

Demand Justice, an organization formed this year by veterans of the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaigns, began running Facebook ads on Monday urging voters to “stop Trump’s SCOTUS takeover.” The group, which has said it plans to raise $10 million this year, has also run ads opposing Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Amul Thapar, three judges who are reported to be on Mr. Trump’s shortlist for the Supreme Court. The candidate-specific ads began running before Justice Kennedy announced his retirement and were targeted at an audience that included users in California and New York, two Democratic strongholds, but also in Florida, a swing state.

These groups, which are classified as 501(c)(4) advocacy groups, are not required to identify their donors or disclose much of their spending. But new Facebook ad policies are for the first time giving a glimpse of how money from these organizations flows through social media.

In an attempt to avoid a repeat of 2016, when Russian disinformation campaigns successfully exploited flaws in its network, Facebook recently began requiring political advertisers to authenticate themselves as residents of the United States and label every ad with a “paid for by” indication. The company also began archiving all paid political content on Facebook and Instagram, including promoted news, in a searchable public database, along with information about how much was spent on the ads and basic details about how they were targeted.


Until Facebook introduced its ad archive, political advertisers could hide their messages from public view with the use of so-called dark posts, nonpublic ads that are shown only to the subset of users who are included in the ad’s target audience and are invisible to everyone else.

These steps have been controversial among news publishers, but they have been popular among journalists and watchdog groups, who have lauded them as a valuable peek behind the dark-money curtain.

“This is more information than we’ve ever had previously about what dark money groups are doing online,” said Brendan Fischer, a program director at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group. “Up until this point, we really had no information whatsoever about how much money a group like Judicial Crisis Network was spending on digital ads, much less what those ads looked like or who they were targeted to.”

Judicial Crisis Network was formed in 2005 to promote the judicial nominees of President George W. Bush. Since then, the group has spent lavishly on campaigns to promote conservative nominees and oppose liberal appointments. It said it spent $7 million blocking the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016 and pledged to spend $10 million supporting the nomination of Justice Gorsuch.

“We want to reach people in every venue possible,” said Carrie Severino, Judicial Crisis Network’s chief counsel and policy director. “We’re doing TV. We’re doing radio. We do a lot of grass-roots work. Of course, social media is a key part of that outreach now.”

Social media advocacy isn’t limited to dark money groups, of course. On Monday, the National Republican Senate Committee began running a Facebook ad campaign that consisted of dozens of images of Mr. Trump, along with the label “SCOTUS Action Alert.” The ads, which were seen mostly by older women in Texas, Florida and Ohio, were not posted on the committee’s public Facebook page, but they appeared in Facebook’s ad archive. One Nation, a conservative offshoot of Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, also used Facebook ads to target users in states with hotly contested Senate races.

“Our rights hang in the balance,” read one ad, which was targeted to users in Montana, where Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat, is up for re-election. “Tell Jon Tester to help put another great Justice on the Supreme Court!”

The ad was seen fewer than 1,000 times, according to Facebook’s archive.

In addition to building grass-roots support with them, political groups often use social media ads as a kind of instant focus group. In a matter of hours, they can test dozens of variations of ads with small numbers of users, see which one drives the most engagement and use the winning message more widely. In the case of a Supreme Court nominee, social media ads allow advocacy groups to figure out which messages are more effective at energizing their supporters.

But in many cases, there is no indication of who is funding these campaigns.

A Facebook spokeswomen, Elisabeth Diana, said that the company did not require political groups to identify their donors, and that it believed the Federal Election Commission, which monitors political spending, was better positioned to investigate these groups.

“Thanks to the political ad archive, we now know what ads these groups are running, but we still don’t know where the money is coming from,” Mr. Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center said. “That’s a very important consideration. Voters might view these messages differently if they knew who was funding them.”

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