NEW HANOVER COUNTY—The New Hanover County Republican Party wagered that Facebook advertising, employed as the foundation for boosting local candidate name recognition and the party platform, could be a tipping point for the 2020 election.
Will Knecht, the party chairman, contracted at least two firms to assist with the digital campaign. The goal was to target county residents on social media with ads bearing the names and photographs of local candidates, who historically have more difficulty becoming household names than their counterparts at the top of ballots.
After its fact-checkers deemed the New Hanover GOP violated the platform’s misinformation policies on multiple occasions, Facebook demonetized the party’s page. Knecht said his organization’s ability to share content and reach viewers was also throttled. He called Facebook’s decision censorship. The content Facebook took issue with was posted in the summer, and later on in the election season, Knecht said his party’s account was barred from making new advertisements.
“It has to do that we were peddling false information, supposedly,” Knecht said. “It’s just insanity.”
Facebook’s internal library of advertisements shows at least 36 of the GOP’s advertisements, out of more than 80, were removed from the platform.
The bulk of the GOP’s advertisements showed a picture of a candidate, mentioned the office he or she was running for, and included a short blurb about the individual.
“As a 30 plus year Deputy Sheriff, Charlie Miller knows what it takes to protect both our citizens and officers in our community,” read one advertisement that was not taken down. “Vote for Charlie Miller in State House District 19!”
Another said: “Now’s the time to make your voice heard! Vote for Ted Davis, Jr. in State House District 20!”
The Facebook ad for Davis also included a photograph of the candidate in a suit. It was taken down by Facebook.
From July 1 through Oct. 17, the GOP reported $13,565 in payments to Facebook for ad buys. According to Facebook’s data, the party has spent $21,452 on the social media platform since May 2018.
A spokesperson for Facebook said fact-checkers who operate independently of the company cited the New Hanover GOP repeatedly for violating Facebook’s misinformation policies, and the page was demonetized according to Facebook’s protocol. The spokesperson did not say which claims made by the GOP were marked as misleading or untrue. Political advertisement policies on Facebook were tightened in the lead up to the election, and all ads concerning social and political issues were indefinitely banned following the election.
Further, Knecht claimed the national firm, Renegade, employed by the GOP to assist in managing advertising campaigns, was “threatened” by Facebook and “almost shut down.” Though Renegade was able to rebut the accusations on its own behalf, its calls on Facebook to restore the GOP’s account to full standing were denied, according to Knecht. Representatives of Renegade could not be reached for comment by the time of publication.
Knecht said the friction with Facebook started in the summer, after two separate posts to the party’s Facebook page — which included YouTube videos — were marked as not truthful. What followed was a heightened scrutiny on the party’s account from Facebook, Knecht said, and a concerted effort to limit his account’s reach as the election drew closer. He added the account had posted more than 1,000 times by that point, and that the only instances of fact checkers being concerned with the content involved two YouTube videos shared to the GOP’s feed.
“It is unbelievable that two out of a thousand are labeled as not true by their all-wise, all-knowing fact checkers, and we as a party are shut down from advertising, limited in sharing, and limited in posting as well,” Knecht said. “It’s incredible.”
Knecht said he did not recall which specific YouTube videos, shared by the GOP, generated the accusations of misinformation — and sparked the first blow in a months-long struggle between Facebook and the GOP account. Knecht said during the fall, as the election approached, the account was not able to post notices of official campaign events.
Though Knecht said he recalled that some of the videos shared to the party’s Facebook account included “a few that were issue focused,” as well as a separate video, “with a local couple, Girard and Tracey Newkirk, espousing opportunity and entrepreneurship versus dependence on government.”
It is unclear which specific YouTube videos shared to the page were the source of concern for Facebook and its fact-checkers. On Sunday, after publication, Knecht said it was important to note that a video with the couple was part of an advertising program for the party, and not associated with the re-posted content that Facebook took issue with.
The videos that first drew notice from Facebook were shared content, made by outside accounts and re-posted on the page , he said, and at no point did Facebook take issue with content that had created by the New Hanover GOP.
Tracey Newkirk co-founded the African American Business Council, an organization within the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, “with the mission to empower African American owned businesses and professionals and to help stimulate economic development,” according to the chamber of commerce website.
She uploaded a YouTube video to an account bearing her name on Oct. 17 — months after Knecht said the videos shared by the GOP’s account were initially flagged. It opened with a shot of the USS North Carolina battleship superimposed behind a waving American flag, with the words “New Hanover County Crossroads Prosperity or Socialism? Election 2020” on the screen.
In the video, she and her husband Gerard discuss their thoughts on the election, and talk about their qualms with the Democratic Party and the media. Some of the video’s statements could have potentially drawn scrutiny from Facebook if a similar video were shared by the GOP. This video was the only one on the account — though there are other accounts that appear to be tied to Newkirk — and was posted on YouTube long after Facebook first took issue with the content on the GOP’s account, according to Knecht’s timeline.
“There is clear disinformation and a misinformation campaign that is going on,” Girard said in the video, referring to the media. “You can’t read the headlines; they’re all clickbait. I joke with Tracey all the time that our media is becoming like what it probably was to the Soviet Union. This is what our mainstream, or ‘MSM’ media is, as far as our decision-making powers.”
The video, which had 61 views at the time of publication, urged people to “dig into policies” rather than making decisions based on emotions or political narratives.
“There is another agenda at play,” Girard said.
Tracey Newkirk did not immediately respond to an email asking if she was available for an interview.
Knecht said the initial plan for the Republican Party’s advertisement strategy was a robust stream of advertisements primarily on Facebook and Instagram, with a secondary push on Google and YouTube. His plan involved a campaign that would target unaffiliated voters with Republican messaging, but that idea was never implemented after Facebook restricted the account’s ability to post content and advertisements, he said.
“And we had to pivot immediately, we had to reduce our spend, and we had to move to YouTube and to Google, somewhat successfully,” he said. “But, again, if that’s not censorship, I don’t know what is.”
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