A digital marketing firm closely linked to the pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA was responsible for a series of deceptive Facebook ads promoting Green party candidates during the 2018 US midterm elections, the Guardian can reveal.
In an apparent attempt to split the Democratic vote in a number of close races, the ads purported to come from an organization called America Progress Now (APN) and used socialist memes and rhetoric to urge leftwing voters to support Green party candidates.
Facebook was aware of the true identity of the advertiser – the conservative marketing firm Rally Forge – and the deceptive nature of the ads, documents seen by the Guardian show, but the company determined that they did not violate its policies.
Rally Forge would go on to set up a pro-Trump domestic “troll farm” for Turning Point Action, a “sister” organization of Turning Point USA, in 2020, earning a permanent ban from Facebook.
“There were no policies at Facebook against pretending to be a group that did not exist, an abuse vector that has also been used by the governments of Honduras and Azerbaijan,” said Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook employee and whistleblower who played a small role in the investigation of the Green party ads.
She added: “The fact that Rally Forge later went on to conduct coordinated inauthentic behavior with troll farms reminiscent of Russia should be taken as an indication that Facebook’s leniency led to more risk-taking behavior.”
Devon Kearns, a spokesperson for Facebook, said: “We removed Rally Forge from our platforms for violating our policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior. Since the 2018 midterms, we have strengthened our policies related to election interference and political ad transparency. We continue working to make political advertising more transparent on our platform and we welcome updated regulations and help from policymakers as we evolve our policies in this space.”
The revelation that the ads were linked to a rightwing organization raises questions about the Federal Election Commission’s enforcement of campaign finance laws. APN and its ads appeared to violate federal laws that require independent expenditures to be filed with the FEC and include proper disclosures on advertisements, as ProPublica and Vice News first reported in 2018.
The non-partisan campaign finance watchdog group Campaign Legal Center (CLC) filed a complaint against APN and subsequently sued the agency in an attempt to force it to investigate the group. But in July 2020, the FEC voted to dismiss allegations that America Progress Now had violated federal law, after an individual, Evan Muhlstein, took responsibility for the ads and attributed the lack of proper disclosures and filings to his “inexperience”.
It is illegal to knowingly make false or fraudulent statements to federal agencies, and the FEC appears to have taken Muhlstein at his word that the ads were a sincere but novice attempt to support Green party candidates.
The former FEC commissioner Ann Ravel, who reviewed the case at the request of the Guardian, said that were she still on the FEC, she would now refer this “stunning” case to the justice department for investigation.
“It seems as if it’s a clear fraud,” Ravel said, noting that the FEC general counsel’s office appeared to have been “misled” by Muhlstein. “The requirement for the justice department to take on an electoral matter is that it be serious and willful, and clearly in this case it was willful, in my opinion.”
Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at CLC, said: “This is an example of why disclosure is so important in elections: swing state voters who saw ‘America Progress Now’ ads promoting Green party candidates would’ve had no idea that they were the handiwork of Republican political operatives. The FEC’s job is to enforce the transparency laws and protect voters’ right to know who is trying to influence them, but the agency here failed to conduct even a minimal investigation.”
‘A crystal clear example of astroturfing’
On 27 October 2018 – just days before the 6 November election – America Progress Now began running a series of ads that used leftist motifs, such as the red rose emoji and images of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to rail against the “corporate, two-party oligarchy” and the “corporate, capitalist wage system”. Some of the ads urged voters to choose a third party, but others endorsed Green party candidates by name – triggering FEC rules for independent expenditures.
Following the 5 November publication of a ProPublica/Vice News report on the “mysterious” group behind the ads, Facebook launched a “hi-pri[ority]” escalation to investigate whether they constituted “coordinated inauthentic behavior” (CIB) – the name Facebook gives to the kind of deceptive tactics that a Russian influence operation used during the 2016 election.
The investigation was straightforward since Facebook has access to information that regular users do not: the names of the people who control Facebook Pages. Investigators quickly realized that America Progress Now was administered by three individuals – Jake Hoffman, Connor Clegg and Colton Duncan – who also served as Facebook Page administrators for Turning Point USA, the rightwing college group founded by Charlie Kirk in 2012. Hoffman and Clegg were also administrators for Kirk’s Facebook Page.
“These admins are connected to Turning Point USA,” one staffer from the civic integrity team said, according to internal task management documents seen by the Guardian. “This is very inauthentic. I don’t know what the policy here is but this seems very sketchy.” Another staffer named Rally Forge as being responsible for the ads. APN had spent nearly $5,000 to have the ads shown to users nearly 300,000 times, a third staffer noted.
A rightwing political marketing firm that ran a $350,000 pro-Trump Super Pac in the 2016 election, Rally Forge was founded and run by Hoffman, an Arizona Republican who was at the time a member of the town council in Queen Creek, Arizona. In November 2020 Hoffman was elected to serve in the Arizona state legislature.
Clegg and Duncan were alumni of Texas State University, where they had been elected student body president and vice-president respectively in 2017. Clegg was impeached and removed from office shortly before his term would have ended in 2018. Duncan resigned from his post in 2017; he appears to have been hired directly by Turning Point USA in 2019.
Since 2017, Rally Forge has been Turning Point USA’s highest-compensated independent contractor, paid more than $1.1m over two years, according to the non-profit’s public filings. Turning Point Action, an affiliated organization also founded by Kirk, paid Rally Forge $700,000 for work supporting Trump and opposing Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign, and an additional $400,000 for work on the US Senate runoff races in Georgia.
Andrew Kolvet, a spokesperson for Turning Point USA, said that neither Turning Point USA nor Turning Point Action had “any involvement” with America Progress Now or its Facebook ads.
In addition to America Progress Now and Turning Point USA, Hoffman, Clegg and Duncan all also served as administrators for a number of other rightwing Facebook Pages. The trio each maintained two accounts to administer their Facebook Pages, one using their full names and one using their first and middle initials – a violation of the company’s policy that each user can only have one Facebook account. One of each of the three men’s accounts had been authorized by Facebook to run political ads, a process that required submitting a government ID to Facebook for verification.
One of Hoffman’s accounts had spent approximately $650,000 to run Facebook ads on behalf of 40 Pages, including the official Page of Donald Trump Jr.
Hoffman declined to answer detailed questions from the Guardian, including about the nature of Rally Forge’s relationship with Muhlstein. “The premise of your questions is either ill-informed or intentionally misleading,” he said in a statement. “Rally Forge is a marketing agency, not a compliance company. Furthermore, it is my understanding that the small handful of ads, totaling less than 2,500 dollars, which qualified as independent expenditures, have been fully disclosed by the responsible organization in coordination with the FEC.”
Duncan said that he had never heard of America Progress Now before the Guardian’s inquiries and had “zero knowledge or insight into the group”. When asked about the CG Duncan account, which had passed Facebook’s verification process and was an administrator of the APN page, he responded: “I urge you to reach out to JM [Hoffman]. Let me know what you find out, I’m as curious as you are.”
Clegg did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him.
Despite possessing clear evidence of inauthenticity, Facebook staffers determined the Green party ads did not violate existing company policies related to political ads or CIB. They decided to deactivate the three men’s extra accounts, but after the election and only after providing them with advance notice.
The episode inspired some disquiet among Facebook staff.
“What I find very problematic is that the intention here is clearly to mislead users,” said the civic integrity staffer. “The users in question clearly created a new FB page to hide their identity, which would be grounds for removal on most surfaces,” she added, referring to Facebook’s rules requiring people to use their real names on their accounts.
One product manager produced an internal postmortem of the incident in which she described it as “a crystal clear example of astroturfing” – deceptive campaign tactics designed to appear as grassroots actions – “… as well as playing both sides … and political ad opacity, since users cannot see who they are. Furthermore, I could see making a case for voter suppression.”
“Unfortunately, it turned out there was nothing we could do against these ads,” she added. “We ended up only aiming to remove a few [duplicate] accounts under the fake account policy, but only after proper notice – and I believe we have not removed them yet.”
“Can we strengthen our ads transparency policies so that political ads are indeed transparent to the user?” she asked.
A Facebook spokesperson said that the company had indeed removed the duplicate accounts following the midterms, and that Rally Forge’s network of Pages and accounts had gone dormant after November 2018. The company made a number of updates to its policies on political ads before the 2020 elections, including requiring advertisers to provide more information about their organizations before being authorized to run ads. It also introduced a new policy to encourage more transparency regarding who runs networks of Facebook Pages.
Rally Forge reactivated its network of Pages and accounts in June 2020, according to Facebook. It established what the Washington Post described as a domestic “troll farm” in Phoenix, Arizona, that employed teenagers to churn out pro-Trump social media posts, some of which cast doubt on the integrity of the US election system or falsely charged Democrats with attempting to steal the election.
Facebook said that it had detected the operation when Rally Forge began making fake accounts, which were detected by the company’s automated systems, and “thinly veiled personas” to carry out deceptive campaigning. In October 2020, the platform permanently banned Rally Forge and Hoffman for violating its policy against CIB, work that Facebook said the firm had undertaken “on behalf of Turning Point USA” and another client.
A spokesman for Turning Point USA disputed the characterization of the operation as a “troll farm” and noted that it was a project of Turning Point Action, which is a separate entity.
Facebook did not take any enforcement action against Turning Point USA, Turning Point Action or Kirk with regard to the Phoenix operation. Facebook also did not disclose Rally Forge’s connection to America Progress Now and the deceptive Green Party ads.
A forestalled investigation
In September 2019, CLC filed a complaint alleging that APN’s failure to register with the FEC violated federal law. The FEC responded by sending a letter to an inaccurate address that America Progress Now had listed on its Facebook Page, but it does not appear to have taken further action, prompting CLC to sue it in February 2020.
“If nothing is done, the FEC will instead be sending a message that anonymous or fake entities like America Progress Now can pop into existence just prior to an election, exploit lax registration and reporting requirements by digital platforms, spend unlimited sums of money, and then disappear into thin air once an election is over,” the group said at the time.
In April 2020, the FEC wrote again, this time to the address listed on an Arizona state business filing for America Progress Now.
On 15 April 2020, Evan Muhlstein responded to the FEC by email. Muhlstein described the lack of filing as an “error”, writing, “I believe that it is important for the commission to understand that any potential failure on either of those items is based entirely on my inexperience to the process.” He wrote that he had “assumed that Facebook’s ‘political disclaimer/disclosure’ was all that was necessary”, said his expenditures totaled “only $2,467.54”, and expressed surprised that “a spend as small as this would require any type of reporting”.
“I again offer my sincerest apology for any potential errors in failing to disclose,” Muhlstein wrote. “Given the apparent obstacles and unknowns of participating in the election process in this manner (of which I am learning some of now), it is highly unlikely I will ever participate in it again. I feel terrible for having been so ignorant to the process.”
Muhlstein also expressed his desire to come into compliance “correctly and quickly”. At no point in the communication did Muhlstein disclose that the advertisements had been handled by a major political marketing firm.
“Muhlstein’s statement to the FEC is extremely misleading and might warrant a criminal investigation,” said Fischer, of the CLC.
Muhlstein did not respond to multiple attempts to make contact with him. His connection to Rally Forge is not known. He is a resident of Queen Creek, Arizona, the town where Hoffman also lives.
The FEC has the power to issue subpoenas and carry out serious investigations, but only after a vote of four of its five commissioners.
In a report dated 4 May, the FEC’s general counsel argued that, while it appeared that Muhlstein had violated federal law, the small amount of money involved and Muhlstein’s statement that he was unlikely to engage in further political spending led it to recommend that the FEC exercise prosecutorial discretion and dismiss the allegations with a warning.
In July, the FEC voted to follow the general counsel’s recommendation and dismiss the case, forestalling any actual investigation.
Commissioner James “Trey” Trainor went further, lambasting the CLC in a statement of reasons. “Contrary to CLC’s wild speculation, this case wasn’t about a ‘fake political group … exploit[ing] Facebook rules … and hid[ing] spending from the FEC,’” he wrote. “In fact, APN was established by an unsophisticated individual trying to show his support for several third-party candidates, but he got tripped by the myriad regulations governing online political speech.”
Trainor asserted that “there was no evidence to contradict” Muhlstein’s statement to the FEC “and no evidence to support CLC’s salacious theories about the ‘unknown person or persons’ behind APN”.
It would not be until 23 December 2020 – six months after the FEC had voted not to pursue the allegations of law violations and more than two years after the election – that Muhlstein would provide the FEC with that evidence, when he finally registered APN with the FEC and disclosed that the independent expenditure had been made through Rally Forge.
The FEC did not respond to questions from the Guardian, citing a policy not to comment on enforcement matters. Trainor did not respond to a request for comment. Fischer said: “It looks like we were right.”
Chinese software developers have crowdsourced a spreadsheet that dishes the dirt on working conditions at hundreds of employers.
Dubbed WorkingTime, the protest aims to offer transparency regarding how many work hours are expected. Many organisations expect 72-hour working weeks – an arrangement dubbed “996” after the 9am to 9pm, six days a week culture in place at many Chinese companies.
The practice has sometimes been promoted by the rich and famous: Alibaba’s Jack Ma publicly stated that employees should actually want to work long hours and a job you love enough to spend that much time doing is a “blessing”.
Chinese courts take a different view. A recent decision found 996-style hours aren’t permissible, as Chinese law caps overtime at 36 hours per month and requires compensation for the extra hours. But China is not a workers’ paradise, and the practice persists because oversight is limited and independent labour unions are illegal in the Middle Kingdom.
The WorkingTime project aims to assist developers looking for work to understand what they’re signing up for.
“The opacity of working hours in some companies, working time is a very important factor in choosing an offer,” wrote a movement founder on Chinese Q&A site Zhihu.
The spreadsheet in which workers record how many hours they work a week, job descriptions, breaks and other remarks strongly suggest that grueling hours remain at some workplaces. Others stick to a 40-ish hour working week and add perks like happy hours and subsidized housing.
The anecdotes, visible on an openly accessible spreadsheet associated with the project, provide a similar service for Chinese tech workers to web pages like Glassdoor – giving tips on company culture and requirements.
Some remarks include:
“I often go on business trips. I have been on business for half of a month. I leave work after 10 o’clock every night at the customer’s site. I have to work overtime on weekends. The entire department has worked for two years except for the leaders.”
“Feel free to ask for leave and lunch time, because it’s the field work, whether you are in the company or not, and you can play games casually, regardless of the leader. If you drink too much, it’s fine if you don’t come.”
“Mandatory to keep people on duty every night, compulsory all staff to work overtime every Saturday, no overtime pay, working hours over 10 hours.”
“When the daily work cannot be completed, it is necessary to work overtime at home.”
“The work pace is fast and the work content is highly saturated. Flexible commute, just do everything.”
The WorkingTime project has gone viral, with the founders reporting over ten million views and thousands of entries as of last Tuesday. While the founders remain anonymous, contributors hail from a diverse subset of companies that includes some of China’s big tech giants like Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei and Bytedance, as well as multinational companies such as SAP, Dyson, Intel and IBM.
According to the project’s GitHub page, lawyers are currently pitching in to sort out legal issues prior to making the project freely downloadable. However, a summary table of data collated daily is already available in Chinese.
Unsurprisingly, the project has stirred some ire. The founders have asked that participants do not apply for editing permission, explaining that “due to malicious editing” such privileges will not be granted. ®
The move comes following a power purchase agreement between Johnson & Johnson and Ørsted, which has windfarm sites in Clare and Kerry.
Johnson & Johnson has revealed plans to move to 100pc renewable electricity across its Irish operations.
The company has entered into an eight-year corporate power purchase agreement in Ireland with Danish company Ørsted. The agreement will help to ensure that the company’s entire Irish operations will be powered by electricity from 100pc renewable sources from now on.
Ørsted will supply the company with more than 1TWh of renewable energy during this period from two windfarms located in Kerry and Clare. The agreement will also help Ørsted as it invests in its strategy to construct more renewable generation in the future.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin, TD, praised the move in the context of Ireland’s climate action plans.
“Johnson & Johnson has embraced its environmental responsibilities globally, but also here in Ireland, and this agreement will help the company to achieve its wider climate goals. We are at a crucial point in the global fight against climate change and initiatives like this should become the benchmark for all companies to aspire to,” he said.
Towards net zero
Last year, Johnson & Johnson’s worldwide VP of environmental health, safety and sustainability, Paulette Frank, spoke at Silicon Republic’s Future Human event about the company’s “bold” climate goals. From her base in the US, Frank told attendees of the virtual event that her colleagues viewed the pandemic as “inspiration to propel” its climate action “further faster.”
Sourcing electricity from 100pc renewable sources is a goal the company set to achieve by 2025. By 2030, it wants to achieve carbon neutrality in its global operations.
John Lynch, plant leader at Johnson & Johnson Vision Care Ireland, said the company was proud to have met its targets in its Irish operations.
“Across our 10 sites and workforce of more than 5,000 here in Ireland, we are committed to supporting Johnson & Johnson’s climate action goals. In the last decade we have invested more than €60m in over 80 carbon footprint reduction projects.
“Today is a major landmark on our journey in Ireland to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030 and underlines our commitment to ensuring a better, healthier world.”
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Australians are the world’s biggest consumers of health and wellness apps, punching well above our per capita weight in our quest for peak physical and mental condition, according to research from telecommunications company Uswitch. In recent years we have also been making them – with everyone from fitness influencers to mental health advocacy groups launching digital products.
I’m partial to a bit of mobile-based movement and mindfulness myself, but I have a complex relationship with wellness. While I love green juices, pilates and my “ness” being “well”, I can’t abide many contemporary uses of the word. In the diet, fitness, fashion and other industries, “wellness” can feel like a barely repackaged “weight loss”, while “healthy” has replaced “slim” as companies respond superficially to the body positivity movement without really changing their ways.
Despite wholesome beginnings in the 1950s, wellness is often framed as a goal for the financially and genetically privileged – and don’t get me started on the pseudoscience.
So I choose cautious cynicism when engaging with wellness and wellbeing products – but I’ve also been alone in my house for the greater part of two years, so I’ll try pretty much anything.
Cost: $19.99 a month
Sweat is a women’s health app co-founded by Australian fitness influencer Kayla Itsines, who boasts a worldwide social media following of more than 40 million. It offers over 30 programs for training at home or the gym, including high-intensity interval training (Hiit), low-intensity training, yoga and barre.
I did sessions from the PWR Zero Equipment program and it was all easy to follow and very doable. Audio and written instructions and onscreen demonstrations are clear, and self-accountability is super easy. It’s perfect for lockdown and for busy people cramming in exercise wherever and whenever they can. Plus, I can report that burpees are still the merciless work of Satan herself.
Itsines has created an app that exists in the wellness space with little of the self-congratulatory, quasi-spiritual hoopla other influencers lean so heavily into. Sweat isn’t pretending to be something it’s not. It’s a workout app, you do workouts on it. Yes, there are recipes and lifestyle tips but they aren’t offered as miracle pathways to a higher plane of being.
Is it my preferred mode of exercise? No. But it’s convenient and flexible and I can see myself using it when I travel. If that’s a thing that ever happens again.
ReachOut’s WorryTime is an anxiety management app from the online youth mental health service that uses cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques to disrupt and manage repetitive thinking.
I am by no definition a youth, but I have mild anxiety and WorryTime’s methodology appealed to me. You nominate a daily time to do all your worrying and when you feel anxious, you note why in the app; every day at the designated time, you worry about what’s still plaguing you and delete what’s not. Easy!
I used WorryTime diligently for a while, noting my fears, my troubles and doubts and reassessing them every 24 hours. All was going well until I got busy with work, stressed about work and scared I’d stop getting work. Where the app had been a welcome task, it became a bugbear.
I was trying not to think about things that made me anxious and knowing the app contained a list of them created a classic avoidance paradigm. I skipped a day. And the next day. And the day after that. Soon the WorryTime alarm was causing me the very anxiety it was engaged to minimise. After a few weeks of this mental chicken-egg dance, I deleted the app. I may have been in the foetal position at the time.
I’m not advocating against WorryTime. It could be a great tool for others. There are no one-size-fits-all mental health salves. It would be nice if there were though.
Bibliotherapy with State Library Victoria
My favourite discovery from this whole exercise is bibliotherapy or book therapy, an age-old practice that uses literature to support better mental health and wellbeing. Basically, you read or are read aloud a prescribed text, specifically chosen to raise questions, uncover truths and encourage healing. It’s also fun to say.
In response to the pandemic, a new podcast called Bibliotherapy with State Library Victoria was launched. Hosted by bibliotherapy practitioner Dr Susan McLaine, it offers to help people “stay calmer in this fragile time”. In each episode, McLaine reads a short story and a poem and poses questions for listeners. Texts range from emerging and obscure writers to Tolstoy, Donne and Kipling.
I love this podcast. There’s something so intimate and soothing about being read to, no doubt embedded in childhood nostalgia. McLaine’s voice takes some getting used to, though to be fair I find this with most podcast hosts, but her choice of texts is excellent and she reads everything slowly and deliberately, “savouring every word and offering space between words”. It’s the closest thing to a hug I’ve had in months.
The only bad thing about it is that there are only two short seasons. After a brief search for similarly soporific, story-based podcasts and apps, I found the excellent Dreamy podcast, a collection of beautiful sleep stories by First Nations storytellers like Jazz Money and Aurora Liddle-Christie. Bringing tens of thousands of years of oral tradition into the digital world, Dreamy is “helping people of all walks of life to quiet their minds, drift into dreams, and disconnect from their devices”.
I also found Sleep Stories on the Calm app ($14.99 a month). It’s full of grown-up tales and mindful nonsense to soothe or bore you into slumber. There are even equally terrible and amazing celebrity cameos: Matthew McConaughey, Cillian Murphy and the hot duke from Bridgerton will read to you like you’re a child. Last night Harry Styles read me the worst poem I’ve ever heard – for 40 minutes. Five stars. Would listen again.
The Resilience Project
Price: $4.49 one time fee
The Resilience Project app is a “daily wellbeing journal” for all ages from a Melbourne-based organisation of the same name, providing evidence-based mental health strategies and “sharing the benefits of gratitude, empathy and mindfulness” to schools, sports clubs and businesses.
Users are encouraged to log on every day, note how they feel, record who or what they’re grateful for, perform acts of kindness and do a short guided meditation. This nice daily ritual only takes a few minutes but proves a small antidote to the current news cycle.
I don’t see myself using it long-term, because of repetitiveness and the world’s shortest attention span, but during this lockdown I’ve appreciated the nightly reminder to acknowledge my blessings and privilege and to reach out to friends.
Though it can’t do the heavy lifting where mental health is concerned, I’ll put it in my arsenal of chronic depression coping mechanisms, and try to use it in bad times. It won’t soothe what only drugs and Great British Bake Off can, but it might provide a few minutes respite.
Cost: $40 a month
The Class is an American exercise methodology-slash-mindfulness practice with semi-cult vibes, taught by a host of ridiculously hot and relentlessly cool twentysomethings who can pull off white Lycra and blend in on aGirlsset.
In fortuitous timing, founder Taryn Toomey launched online classes in late 2019, taking the Class into locked down homes around the world from 2020. Australians can access a wide selection of on-demand and live online classes, and there’s even an Australian teacher. Timezone differences narrow live options quite a bit, but most live classes become on-demand classes, so it doesn’t really matter.
Frequented by celebrities including Alicia Keys, Naomi Watts and Emma Stone, the Class is a mat-based, music-driven “cathartic workout experience” designed to “strengthen the body and balance the mind”. It’s yoga meets Les Mills meets clubbing. Movements are simple, repetition is key and loud exhales are encouraged. You may do squats for a whole song, free dance for another and star jumps for the next. In between, there’s stillness.
Teachers speak a kind of motivational psychobabble that is at once intolerable and addictive. It verges on the spiritual and flirts with cultural appropriation but remains just secular enough that I don’t turn it off. “Be in your power”; “You are enough”; “Softness is your birthright” and so on. Many teachers end their sessions with “I love you” which I somehow don’t hate.
At first, I struggled to put aside my prejudices against self-indulgent, pseudo-mystical wellness fads and find peace with beautiful women telling me to accept myself while making me do burpees. But the more I did it, the more I was able to just let go and roll with the theatre. Plus, it’s actually a very good workout.
I am now willingly paying for the Class. Let’s never speak of this again. I love you.