The social media feeds of progressive voters have been bombarded by a series of ads this past week telling them to urge their Democratic representatives to vote against the Inflation Reduction Act.
The ads aren’t from the Sunrise Movement or other progressive climate stalwarts, though. Instead, they’re being pushed by United for Clean Power, a murky dark money operation that appears to have connections with Republican operatives.
While the campaign itself is not particularly sophisticated — the tagline “no reconciliation without comprehensive climate change” seems to forget that climate change is not desirable, in a bill or otherwise — it is an illustration of how social media is still being leveraged to sow doubt and confusion despite platforms trying to clean up the information environment.
The blitz started on the day Sen. Joe Manchin and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that they had arrived at a deal for $369 billion in climate investments as part of a reconciliation bill. On Thursday, conservative Democrat Sen. Kyrsten Sinema signaled she supported the bill after agreeing to a few tweaks to the tax policies, indicating it will likely clear the Senate.
But the votes in the House aren’t quite tied up yet, and the campaign — which newsletter FWIW first identified — has been using a swath of strategies that include social media advertising, direct text messages to voters and even a sponsorship of the POLITICO New York newsletter to try to chip away support from the left.
(Both POLITICO and Protocol are POLITICO Media Group publications, and are owned by Axel Springer.)
FWIW found a series of digital ads running on platforms like Facebook, whose parent company Meta has received at least $11,500 from the group so far, and on Google, where the group has spent at least $9,900. The campaign seems to specifically target constituents of progressive lawmakers like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, and urges those voters to push them to “demand environmental justice or kill the reconciliation bill.”
United for Clean Power is a symptom of how quickly and easily social media allows interest groups — both nefarious and not — to reach a targeted audience.
“Social media has allowed people to target super-specific audiences with messages about energy,” Kert Davies, founder and director of the Climate Investigations Center, told Protocol. “The scariest thing about social media is that you can test if a message is working.”
A review of both Meta’s and Google’s ad policies by the climate newsletter Heated suggests that United for Clean Power may be abusing at least Google’s policy, which doesn’t allow "coordinated deceptive practices.” POLITICO did not respond to questions from Protocol about whether a sponsor misrepresenting its position on an issue would typically be a cause for refusing to work with them.
The campaign is also targeting voters in districts represented by noted progressives via text message. Huffington Post journalist Alexander Kaufman lives in Ocasio-Cortez’s district in Queens and received one, and Sarah Loschiavo, a progressive constituent of Omar’s who has voted for the Democrat more than once, received one as well.
United for Clean Power's Facebook ads and one of its text messages sent to Sarah Loschiavo.Images: Sarah Loschiavo; FWIW
United for Clean Power has been around since 2015, though its current iteration is largely divorced from its origins. The group was co-founded by Erin Cummings, who currently works at the Department of Homeland Security, to promote bipartisan energy policies. In 2017, she transferred control of the group to its current director, Greg Finnerty, an Ohio-based lawyer who did not respond to Protocol’s request for comment. It is unclear who is funding the group under his leadership.
Cummings, who is no longer at all involved, told Protocol she is baffled by the group’s current campaign, which represents a different iteration of United for Clean Power than the one she was involved in.
“I support the bill,” she said.
In 2018, the group mounted a campaign against Ohio Republican Rep. Kyle Koehler via a Facebook page that has been quiet ever since; a 2019 tax form shows that the group spun out Ohioans for Efficient Government, which has virtually no internet presence.
The campaign’s 2018 tax forms show it spent over $135,000 enlisting the GOP-focused firm Majority Strategies for advertising services. The 2019 form, which is the most recent that is publicly available, shows the group had revenue of nearly $208,000. Neither the campaign itself nor Majority Strategies responded to requests for comment.
What is so striking about these ads is how wildly out of step they are with the reality of what progressive politicians have been pushing for on climate. While progressives had pushed for more climate funding as part of the Build Back Better Act, the Inflation Reduction Act is still historic and may be Democrats’ last best shot to pass climate legislation with the upcoming midterms likely to result in the party losing one or both chambers of Congress. Though it has not made it to the House yet, progressive independent Sen. Bernie Sanders has explicitly said that the climate funding is “a step forward” despite it coming alongside breaks for the fossil fuel industry; while he said he would submit some amendments, he seems prepared to vote for it given Democrats are moving ahead with the legislative process.
The campaign seems to ignore these dynamics entirely. But Davies said this and campaigns like it are designed to exploit the ongoing division within the party, political reality notwithstanding.
“[The campaign is] hitting a nerve that is raw, and somebody is aware of that and trying to divide the Democratic camp based on real divides that exist,” Davies said. “They know that there are divisions on the left that remain from the Green New Deal … It’s really difficult for some people to bite their tongue at this point.”
Update: This story was updated with new details, including comment from its co-founder Erin Cummings, on Aug. 9.