24.11.23 Big Tech

Viral campaign attacking pro-Palestine movement points to gaps in Meta rules

Videos by Facts for Peace have amassed millions of views but make no mention of ultimate funder

A multimillion-dollar campaign attacking the pro-Palestine movement has spent more than $370,000 in the past month on viral adverts for Facebook and Instagram without disclosing where its money comes from.

The campaign, run by an organisation called Facts for Peace, has published videos that appear to conflate support for Palestine with backing for Hamas, a designated terrorist group. Its content has already amassed more than 21m views.

The adverts highlight how current social media rules mean new campaigns can quickly reach millions of people while remaining opaque about their own funding. Neither Facts for Peace’s listing on Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, nor its own website makes any mention of who is behind the campaign.

Meta requires advertisers to complete an authorisation process and adverts about social issues or politics to include a “paid for by” disclaimer.

A separate Meta policy on inauthentic behaviour says you should not “conceal a Page’s purpose by misleading users about the ownership or control of that page”.

Meta told TBIJ that the campaign does not violate either of these policies.

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Sam Jeffers of the digital transparency group Who Targets Me says his organisation “has long had concerns about the way the big platforms allow new advertisers to run large volumes of ads on sensitive political issues despite the pages concerned having no previous track record”.

“The platforms should require a lot more transparency from their advertisers and, in doing so, make things much easier for their users.”

The US-based news site Semafor reported earlier this month that the campaign was launched by American real-estate investor Barry Sternlicht to foster support for Israel in the days following the attacks by Hamas on 7 October.

Semafor reported Sternlicht had sought donations from dozens of wealthy business people, raised several million dollars and hired the PR strategist Josh Vlasto to advise. Vlasto has previously held senior positions working for US senator Chuck Shumer and former governor of New York Andrew Cuomo.

Vlasto’s name is absent from the Facts for Peace listing for the Facebook and Instagram ads and the Facts for Peace website, but reverse searches for the number registered on Meta’s Ad Library point to Vlasto, and the number is also listed as the number for his PR company, Bamberger & Vlasto.

An analysis by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism of the Ad Library on Meta reveals that Facts for Peace spent between $372,700 and $470,887 in about a month. The ads were run by the main Instagram and Facebook pages Facts for Peace, which lists itself as a “media/news company”, but does not disclose its source of funding or Vlasto’s involvement. As of 24 November, the campaign was still spending money on Meta ads.

Meta told TBIJ that the adverts are “clearly labeled with a ‘paid by’ disclaimer and placed in our Ads Library so that everyone can see […] who paid for them”. It said its Ads Library “provides more transparency into social issues, political and electoral advertising than TV, radio or any other digital ad platform”.

Facts for Peace has set up another site, Israel Palestine Chronicles, which is linked to accounts on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. At the time of writing these are not active.

The Facts for Peace, Israel Palestine Chronicles and Bamberger & Vlasto sites all share the same IP addresses, indicating that they are all hosted on the same server.

Of the 213 ads Facts for Peace has published on Meta so far, three appear to have been taken down for violating Meta’s advertising standards. It is unclear which policy was infringed.

Facts for Peace is an incorporated company that changed its name on 16 October to match its social media pages, created two days before. The company had three days earlier been renamed Change the Narrative Coalition LLC from Fulfill the Promise LLC, which had been founded on 15 September 2022.

Some of the content published by the campaign appears to conflate support for Palestine with the endorsement of various violent and repressive views.

In one video, a young man approaches pedestrians in New York City asking them to sign “a quick petition to help Hamas free Palestine”. He goes on to read a list of “terms and conditions”, which include “You agree that every Jew, Christian, and non-Muslim in the world must be slaughtered”, “You believe Iran should use Palestinians as puppets to spread radical jihad and destroy the west” and “You want a terrorist group that beheads babies and rapes girls to replace only democracy in the Middle East”.

“This time, make sure to read the fine print,” reads the caption posted below the video.

While there have been expressions of support for Hamas at pro-Palestine rallies, many of those campaigning in support of Palestine do not support Hamas.

The video has gone viral across social media in recent weeks after being promoted by various prominent figures including the American political commentator Ben Shapiro, the far-right news website Breitbart and the embassy of Israel in Chile.

The Facts for Peace website has not yet published anything apart from the slogan: “Get the facts on Hamas, Israel and peace in the region”. It does however contain hidden templates for additional pages, one of which features the text: “Fact Check: No, Israel Didn’t [Placeholder]” and another stating “Poll: Americans Support Israel’s Right to Defend Itself”.

The campaign has enjoyed the support of various prominent figures since it was launched on 14 October. The petition video starred the comedian Mikey Greenblatt while other videos have featured the Australian actor Nathaniel Buzolic, the TV host and actor Zach Sage Fox, content creator Mandana Dayani and Mosab Hassan Yousef, a Palestinian who has worked undercover for Israel’s internal security and is a prominent opponent of calls for a ceasefire.

According to emails seen by Semafor, Sternlicht says the aim of the campaign is to “define Hamas to the American people as a terrorist organization” (which reflects its designation by the US, European Union and UK). Yet some of its content appears to exist outside of this remit.

In early November, the social media platforms tied to the campaign published a video featuring “a Jew going undercover at a free Palestine rally to see what they’re really about.” His interviewees describe Jews as “devils” and say “Jews have always been a problem”.

“Are these really protests for peace? Or riots for hate?” asks a white-on-black text at the end of the video.

Another video, captioned as “facts about both sides”, lists the countries that support Israel and then those that support “Hamas, Palestine”.

Facts for Peace, Barry Sternlicht and Josh Vlasto did not respond to requests for comment.

This article was updated on 24 November to incorporate clarification, given to TBIJ after publication, that Facts for Peace has not been found to breach Meta's inauthentic behaviour policy.

Reporter: Francesca Visser
Tech editor: Jasper Jackson
Deputy editor: Katie Mark
Editor: Franz Wild
Production editor: Alex Hess
Fact checker: Natalie Bloomer

Our reporting on Big Tech is funded by Open Society Foundations. None of our funders have any influence over our editorial decisions or output.

Subject:

  • Advertising
  • Influence operations

Area:

  • Money