Patriots Run Project network exposes Meta’s transparency failures

13 June 2024

By: Max Read and Kevin D. Reyes

An ISD investigation uncovered a network of Facebook pages, groups, and websites that used coordinated inauthentic behavior and evaded ads transparency policies to encourage pro-Trump, anti-establishment candidates to run for office. The effort, which began in mid-2023, was active for almost a year despite violating Meta’s policies. This incident exposes the risks of trusting social media platforms to police themselves, with no oversight or accountability for failing to protect users and democratic processes from manipulation.

On 30 April, the European Commission opened enforcement proceedings against Meta under several provisions of the Digital Services Act (DSA). The most comprehensive policy approach to platform accountability to date, the DSA codifies social media platforms’ responsibilities to protect users from online harms. It also gives European regulators the authority to investigate and sanction platforms for non-compliance. The Commission’s investigation into Meta focuses on issues including the persistent problems of deceptive political advertising and coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB) on Meta’s platforms.

Unfortunately for American voters, the Commission and DSA only have jurisdiction to investigate and sanction Meta for violations affecting users based in the European Union. US lawmakers have failed to make progress on meaningful platform accountability legislation, meaning users of Meta platforms in the US and elsewhere outside the EU do not have similar protections. The US system relies on trusting Meta to enforce its own policies on mis- and dis-information, deceptive advertising, AI, hate speech and a range of other issues with little to no oversight or penalties for failure. As an ISD investigation into a suspicious network of Facebook pages and groups shows, six months out from the 2024 presidential election, Meta is still failing to do the bare minimum: enforce its own policies on CIB and transparency for political ads.

Patriots Run Project

The Patriots Run Project (PRP) offers a stark example of the concerning activity that Meta continues to allow on its platforms, despite repeated assurances about its content moderation and transparency enforcement. Meta removed most of the network’s pages and groups in early June, after ISD had completed this investigation. As outlined below, Meta profited from PRP’s activity on Facebook for almost a year before taking down the network. Meanwhile, voters who came across it had no way of assessing whether the group was real, who was behind it, and what its true motivations were.

While the PRP network itself may not appear to have significant influence, it is only one example of the deceptive activity Meta allows – and profits from – on its platforms, while failing to protect users from manipulative activity. The vast number of voters who spend time on social media have no protection from this, and there is currently no recourse or mechanism to hold Meta or other platforms accountable. If past cycles are any guide, this kind of manipulation on social media will increase as the election nears, leaving voters to navigate an online information space awash in disinformation, CIB, voter suppression content, election denialism and whatever new threats emerge this year.

Before Meta took enforcement action, Patriots Run Project was a network of 26 domains, 10 websites, 15 Facebook pages and 13 linked Facebook groups. It purported to represent a group of “patriots” dedicated to stopping the “Uniparty of corporate, elitist politicians who are selling out America to the Anti-Christian Communist Left”, though our research suggests it only ever existed only online. PRP called for followers to run for office on a pro-Trump, anti-establishment platform focused on many of the same issues that motivate the right-wing movement: gun rights, border security, “traditional values” and combatting election fraud. It has had at least one success: Dennis Hayes, a Libertarian candidate running in Montana’s 1st Congressional District, cited the group as his motivation for entering the race.

PRP is not a registered business entity (e.g. corporation, LLC, etc), tax-exempt organization or political action committee (PAC). ISD reviewed public records from the 14 states where PRP claims to have chapters; it also looked at Washington, D.C., where PRP claims to be based and the neighboring state of Maryland, as well as Oregon, where the phone number for PRP’s main Facebook page appears to be based. Our research also looked at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Federal Elections Commission (FEC).

The only street address linked to PRP is a mailbox at a UPS store in Washington, D.C. Its website offers no information about its leadership, funding or structure. As we outline below, whoever is behind it has taken measures to obscure their identity (or identities) while presenting PRP as a grassroots network of citizens.

Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior

Despite claiming to be run by citizens across 14 states, the pages and groups showed several signs that they were controlled by the same person or group of people:

  1. The Facebook pages and groups were mostly set up in batches: Three pages were set up on 7 June 2023, four on 25 July, and four on 4 September. Three of the groups were set up on 21 December, four between 8 and 9 January 2024 and three more on March 25.
  2. They frequently cross-posted content across multiple pages and groups in short succession: In the example below, the same post was posted in the 13 groups within eight minutes. Five minutes later, the pages that administer the groups started re-posting the group posts and all did so within a four-minute period.
  3. All pages have run ads and listed Washington DC as their address: Data from a privacy page on ten of the websites lists the UPS store mailbox in Washington as the mailing address.
  4. For 13 of the 15 pages, Meta’s transparency feature showed how many accounts have administrator access to the page: 11 of the 15 had nine administrators. One had eight, one had seven and two are unknown.
  5. Each state-level page has a local phone number listed: An open-source investigation suggests these are from a voice over internet protocol (VoIP) provider. This indicates someone is using the service to obtain local phone numbers it can list for each page, making them look more legitimate.

These characteristics all suggest that the network was violating Meta’s coordinated inauthentic behavior policies by deceiving users and Meta about the “identity, purpose, or origin of the entity that they represent.” They were all likely managed by the same person or group of people, and whoever was responsible for setting them up took steps to mask their identity. Meta took down most of the network; as of publication, one group is still active. Even when Meta chooses to enforce its policies, it does so haphazardly.

Figure 1. Patriots Run Project’s groups and pages on Facebook consistently post the same content within minutes of each other.

Ads Transparency and Moderation Failures

The PRP network ran over $48,000 worth of ads on Facebook and Instagram, according to Meta’s ad library. By 2024 political advertising standards, $48,000 over ten months is not a large sum. But it is a substantial amount for a group of unknown origin and control which does not appear to solicit donations anywhere on its online properties. Meta’s authorization process for advertisers who run political and issue ads requires a residential address and a government issue ID. Advertisers who run these ads are required to include disclaimers including accurate information about the entity or person responsible for the ad. The ad library lists the VoIP phone numbers associated with each page and the address for each is listed as Washington, D.C., suggesting they were all authorized despite using the same UPS store mailbox to register. Meta says it works with third-party providers to verify advertisers’ identities, but that is of little use to users who might wonder who is behind this effort to recruit candidates for public office.

In addition to failing on transparency features, Meta also allowed PRP to run ads that at minimum push the boundaries of its platforms’ civic integrity policy, and in some cases violate the policy. For example, PRP ran several ads suggesting “election interference” resulted in former President Donald Trump’s name being left off the Nevada presidential primary ballot. In fact, Trump not to participate in the primary and instead ran in the state party-organized caucus. PRP has also run ads claiming “election after election [have] been stolen in Arizona,” and ads that called Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs “illegitimate.” Meta removed some of these ads for violating its standards – notably, it does not specify what provisions of its ad policies were violated – but left many with the same content active until it took the network down last week.

Figure 2. Patriots Run Project Facebook ads promote election denial narratives.

Small but growing audience

The groups and pages were all set up after June 2023 and their audiences remained small before they were taken down. The most followers any of the pages had was 332, and the largest group had only 166 members. Their organic reach appeared limited but was growing before Meta took them down. It is impossible to tell how much of an impact Patriots Run Project made on public opinion. But if PRP successfully used Meta platforms to recruit candidates for public office, including by running tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of ads, voters have a right to know who is behind the group. By taking a year to enforce its policies, Meta abdicated its responsibility to its users. In 2024, as voters are bombarded with information from all sides, Meta’s failure to enforce its own policies will make it harder for them to trust information they see online and each other. Without DSA-style regulation in the US, the company will remain unaccountable.

Appendix: Patriots Run Project’s following

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