A digital advertising company that came under intense scrutiny last year for its deceptive political ads on social media is gearing up to get involved in some crucial 2020 battleground states. But it’s retooling its approach to avoid the backlash that befell it in 2018.
MotiveAI, a Denver-based startup with backing from billionaire LinkedIn chairman Reid Hoffman, has built a new social media-based news agency called Versa, and it’s already dipping its toes into key 2020 U.S. Senate races.
That involvement caught the eye of a nonprofit ethics group, which alleged deceptive ad practices, and Facebook, which has tried to add layers of transparency to political ads like the ones MotiveAI backed last cycle. The firm insists that its tactics have changed and Versa says it is aiming to be upfront and trusted this go around. But while MotiveAI says its work this cycle will be purely nonpartisan, it’s also weighing in on some high-profile elections, providing yet another illustration of how digital politicking can often intersect with straightforward political news.
It’s a growing phenomenon on both sides of the political aisle. Joe Pounder, the co-founder of Republican research firm America Rising, told Politico on Monday that “the surface blurring of lines between reporting and opposition research” is a major trend in contemporary politics. “All information is now democratized so everyone can act like a researcher and reporter.”
Versa appears to create little stand-alone reporting. Instead it relies mostly on short, slickly-produced videos analyzing stories already in the news, which it posts through its pages on Facebook and Instagram, and paid ads that promote reporting by other outlets that aligns with its progressive politics. Versa has already set up three state-focused Facebook pages devoted to Colorado, Arizona, and Kentucky, and is currently developing plans for five or six more, according to MotiveAI chief executive Dan Fletcher. And while Fletcher insists that the aim is to fill a perceived digital news gap in those states, he also acknowledges that those states were picked precisely for their importance in the 2020 cycle.
“We’re taking a look at where we think the political conversation is going to be be over the next few years,” Fletcher told The Daily Beast in an interview on Saturday. “Arizona obviously has a senate race in 2020, there’s going to be a lot of conversation going on around that. Kentucky, I mean, Mitch McConnell is at the center of every national conversation.”
“I don’t think we’re positioning Versa as the vehicle to deliver Democratic wins,” he added. “But I do think there’s going to be a lot of media misinformation that happens within these states because of this cycle, and standing up a trusted, transparent media property in the two years before the cycle, and before all that activity starts to happen, is a good defensive mechanism.”
Versa is not a project of any MotiveAI client. Fletcher said the company is funding “internally” from “venture dollars.” It was incorporated in Colorado in January, and has since brought on a number of senior staff members from pioneering progressive digital media property Upworthy, including that company’s head of standards.
The ads Versa is running on its state-specific Facebook pages include generic local news content and short, catchy videos on current events. But they also include more politically-themed posts about candidates running in 2020 Senate races. Versa Arizona has placed ads attacking newly elected Arizona Republican Party chair Kelly Ward and boosting Democratic senate challenger Mark Kelly. Its Colorado page has recently boosted stories going after incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and promoted two of his potential Democratic challengers—one of whom, former state senator Mike Johnston, has received significant financial backing from Hoffman, the MotiveAI investor.
“Versa wants to be public facing in having a progressive point of view. No one’s hiding that,” Fletcher acknowledges. “But at the same time, I don’t think we’re solely in one camp or the other.” Asked what, in his mind, differentiates ideologically-aligned news media from political advocacy, Fletcher said: “The factualness and making sure that we’re not taking cheap shots... makes it more on the side of political news for me than political advertising.”
Some prior MotiveAI’s advertising campaigns came down on the other end of that divide. Its 2018 social media strategy involved a number of stand-alone Facebook pages that didn’t disclose their relationship to MotiveAI. Fletcher says his company acted as a vendor for those pages and the “partners” responsible for the ad campaigns. Some of those pages wooed followers with apolitical organic content before bombarding them with paid political ads, and trafficked in conspiracy theories and outlandish, occasionally sexist content.
Four Colorado-based limited liability companies associated with MotiveAI used nearly 50 seemingly independent Facebook pages to purchase ads in 2018. The goal was to target specific demographics with paid ads that promoted progressive and Democratic messages. Many of its Facebook pages were named to sound like news organizations, such as Empire News and Pacific Sun Chronicle. Others tried to appeal to specific groups, including seniors, veterans, Christians, and gun owners.
The messaging of some of those pages’ ads ranged from the offensive to the downright bizarre. A page called Drain The Swamp, which appeared to target Republicans, promoted conspiracy theories that Brett Kavanaugh—then facing a bitter Supreme Court confirmation fight—had helped Bill and Hillary Clinton cover up the murder of a White House aide. Another page, called The Keg Bros, dubbed Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) a “C.W.I.L.F.,” or “congresswoman I’d like to fuck,” and made sexist comments about Republican mega-donor Rebekah Mercer.
After the 2018 election, MotiveAI took some credit for Democratic gains in the House of Representatives. “We produced over 260 videos and over 5,000 individual ads,” the company said in a sizzle reel promoting its work, “which led to 28 districts flipped and the highest Democratic margin since 1972 [and the] first time in eight years the Democrats took control of the House.”
The video concluded by proclaiming, “We can do more in 2020,” with the logos of prominent social media companies pointing to an image of the White House seal.
After The Daily Beast asked Fletcher about that video and its claims, it was removed from the web. (The Daily Beast downloaded a copy of the video before it was taken down.)
The apparently political nature of MotiveAI’s ad campaign last year led the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a right-leaning watchdog group, to lodge a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. The group alleged that News for Democracy, one of the LLCs that MotiveAI had used to pay for political ads on Facebook, had failed to disclose what amounted to outright political advocacy, as required by law.
FACT’s complaint identified a number of ads on pages geared towards states with competitive 2018 Senate contests, including North Dakota, Florida, and Tennessee. Most of them appeared to be what the FEC considers “electioneering communications,” or ads mentioning a candidate for office, but that don’t explicitly advocate for the election or defeat of that candidate. Some of them, though, seemed to cross that line into “express advocacy,” or explicit calls for a vote for a particular candidate or political party. One ad on the page Sounds like Tennessee, for instance, declared, “I’ll be voting Democrat in the midterm elections on November 6.”
But FACT’s complaint failed to grapple with a key question, according to Brendan Fischer, the director of federal and FEC reform programs at the Campaign Legal Center.
The complaint “doesn’t show that these ads would not qualify for the media exemption,” Fischer explained. “The FEC correctly gives broad latitude to media, so to argue that an organization calling itself ‘News for Democracy’ should be subject to campaign finance regulation would require showing that the entity is not a legitimate press entity, or that it is not acting in its legitimate press function when running these ads. The complaint doesn’t do that.”
In 2020, Versa is not taking chances that groups like FACT may tighten their FEC complaints. It's recasting its approach to make it closer to that of a news organization, which should, in turn, make arguments that it is engaged in surreptitious politicking more difficult to mount.
That divide between news and political content is one with which Facebook itself has been forced to grapple as it attempts to make its role as a political advertising platform more transparent. The company rolled out a searchable database of political ads last spring, and quickly faced criticism over its classification of some news content as political advertising.
MotiveAI has already faced some scrutiny from Facebook over how it delivers its advertising. In January, the Washington Post reported that the company was investigating News for Democracy and other MotiveAI-affiliated pages over allegations that their ad campaigns misrepresented the interests behind them.
At the same time, Hoffman, the main MotiveAI investor, has come under intense scrutiny over his backing of separate Facebook ad campaigns that sought to falsely tie the 2017 Senate candidacy of Roy Moore (R-AL) to nonexistent Russian government actors.
MotiveAI’s history last cycle, and the controversy that has bedeviled a number of Facebook advertisers since last year, including MotiveAI itself, has prompted the company’s new political advertising property to put a premium on transparency.
Versa, Fletcher noted, will be operating parallel to—though, he insists, completely separate from—MotiveAI’s more explicitly partisan work as a political vendor. There will be a “strict firewall,” he said, between Versa’s news operation and MotiveAI’s work for its clients.
“What I learned from the experience in the fall was that people on Facebook have an expectation of more transparency from where their political info or news is coming from,” Fletcher said. “We’re not trying to hide who’s behind it, and the positioning of it is we’re going to put out all the information about what we believe and what we want to see happen and you’ll either trust us or you won’t.”