The dark political campaign money that was funneled through Parler
This is the second part of a multi-part series on data I crawled from Parler’s API until it was shut down by Amazon. I got a surprising amount of attention from part 1 and sent data to quite a few researchers who emailed me. I hope to see more people using this data to investigate how social networks can serve as echo chambers for conspiracies and misinformation.
Part 2 was supposed to be about misinformation websites shared within Parler, but that’s now in part 3. As I started analyzing external links from Parler, a trail of breadcrumbs led me to the bizarre campaign finances of Congress’ most controversial new members, Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Parler’s link to WinRed
A post on Parler, called a Parley, can have one or more links attached to it. Parler recorded the number of times each post was viewed, so I was able to visualize a breakdown of the most popular external domains.
The most popular external domain by impressions is the fundraising organization secure.winred.com, which distributes the money it raises to Republican political campaigns. There is clearly an advertising relationship between the Republican fundraising apparatus and Parler, confirmed by FEC filings, as well as by the observation that measuring engagement in terms of comment count changes the distribution significantly.
According to FEC filings, there was one super PAC and two political campaigns that used campaign funds to pay for advertising on Parler.
- The campaign of Devin Nunes spent $1400 to advertise on Parler in mid-August. This is a drop in the bucket for the Nunes campaign, which raised over $26 million dollars.
- The Stop Socialism Now super PAC began advertising on Parler on November 9th, a few days after the US presidential election was called in favor of Joe Biden. On the 9th, they paid Parler $1000 in advertising fees. The following day they paid another $6000, and then another $8000 by the end of the week. The following week they paid $20,000 for advertising on Parler, spending a total of $41,075 in the month of November, all of it after the election.
- The largest and most bizarre source of advertising income for Parler during the 2020 election came from the campaign of Marjorie Taylor Greene, who spent $211,000 in less than one month. Greene had a guaranteed victory in her race for Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, which leans heavily right. Greene’s campaign spent $4500 advertising on Parler over the week leading up to November 3rd, then proceeded to spend a whopping $206,500 over the remainder of the month, including a single payment of over $50,000. Her total spending on Parler represents around 10% of the total funds raised by her campaign, and 83% of the total reported political expenditure on Parler for the 2020 election cycle.
What was Greene advertising?
Probably not her own campaign, considering she had already won in a landslide against an opponent who effectively withdrew from the race. Greene is rarely the subject of Parler posts that have boosted engagement (i.e. a higher than usual impression-to-comment ratio), and is hardly ever mentioned by Parler users. I cannot say anything with absolute certainty since the full archive of Parler is not yet ready, but I find it highly unlikely my crawler would miss Greene’s political advertisements but catch all the others.
I can only speculate that this post from November 7th, which recorded over 8 million impressions, is related to the $9000 payment the Greene for Congress campaign made the day before.
Control of the Senate comes down to Georgia.
Do your part to defend the majority and keep Georgia red by splitting a donation between Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue today >> Defend the Senate Majority
On November 8th, the following post soliciting donations for the failed recount efforts of Sean Parnell in Pennsylvania received over 9 million views, and likely performed quite well considering that Parler users were being continuously fed lies about election fraud.
All eyes are on Pennsylvania, and our team is working day and night to keep this election fair.
If you can, please donate to our Election Defense Fund so we can make sure every vote is valid and legal.
Sean Parnell lost the election for PA-17 by less than 10,000 votes, and was a vocal proponent of Donald Trump’s election fraud claims on Twitter. The day after this post, the Greene campaign paid $50,500 to Parler. The day after that, they paid $34,500. By the end of the week, they would pay another $31,500. The Greene campaign effectively paid over $100,000 in a single week for the vague purpose of “digital advertising for fundraising” well after their candidate had already won her race.
Isn’t this a campaign finance violation?
The only way several of the sponsored advertisements on Parler in November could have been financed is by the campaign of Marjorie Taylor Greene. There is no other way for a Parley to organically reach millions of users unless promoted by a popular user like Sean Hannity or “echoed” by users, neither of which seems likely in this situation.
If my theory is correct, I believe it would be a violation of campaign finance laws for the Greene campaign to put hundreds of thousands of dollars toward advertising for other Republican candidates without reporting an in-kind contribution. I believe that the campaign saw Parler as a fringe social network where neither the users nor operators would care to report an FEC violation against a Republican, especially given that Parler’s main investor is a prominent conservative donor.
Am I the only one who finds it strange that a candidate with a guaranteed win in her election decided to spend over $200,000 on political advertising after the final ballot was cast, barely made a scratch on the social network where she single-handedly contributed 83% of political advertising revenue, and didn’t have a single line item on her campaign receipts indicating the money was dispensed to another campaign?
It also strikes me as unethical that Greene’s construction company received a PPP loan of up to $350,000, even though she had the funds to loan $700,000 to her campaign and to blow over $200,000 of that money on digital advertising that she didn’t need for herself.
The super PAC also seems shady
The Stop Socialism Now super PAC is funded by a handful of donors contributing $500 — $5000, and one big-money donor who lives within Greene’s congressional district contributing $125,000 (see the FEC filing).
The SSN super PAC fills out the “Purpose of Expenditure” field for Facebook advertising expenses with the specific candidate being supported or opposed by their advertising campaigns.
For every disbursement made to Parler, they write the exact same vague purpose that the campaign of Marjorie Taylor Greene uses — “Digital advertising for fundraising”.
This super PAC is managed by Jason Boles of RTA Strategy, a political consulting firm that manages various PACs and political finance machines. When you go to RTA Strategy’s website, the first thing you will read on the splash page is shown below.
I was planning to make part 2 about the misinformation sites that are widely shared on Parler. However, within minutes of starting my analysis on external links, I noticed the strange distribution of links to winred.com, which led me to look up FEC filings, which led me to learn everything I possibly could about Marjorie Taylor Greene. Greene is a known QAnon supporter, and months of scraping Parler has left me with a pretty good understanding of how their crazy theories work. You pull one thread here, another thread there, and pretty soon you are making a nonsensical argument for how Bill Gates started the coronavirus. I am legitimately worried I might be doing the same thing, seeing patterns where none exist. I will hopefully have more to write on this when two FOIA requests get back to me.
In part 3, I proceed with my original plan of writing about how most of the links to disinformation sites on Parler are hosted by big tech companies, and hopefully provide a compelling argument as to why banning Parler is a futile exercise in regulating the Internet.