Joe Arpaio boasts on his campaign website that during his tenure as “chief law enforcement officer” for Maricopa County, Arizona, he “continued to reduce crime with hard-hitting enforcement methods.” But since his failed November 2016 sheriff re-election campaign, the Republican senate hopeful may have repeatedly violated the Federal Trade Commission Act and Facebook’s policy by accepting tens of thousands of dollars to share stories from a right-wing click-bait site without disclosing that they were paid ads.
According to his mandatory personal financial disclosure statement, filed last week, Arpaio received $57,948 last year from LIftable Media, Inc. of Phoenix, Arizona for “royalties.” That amounted to more than a quarter of his income for the year. He noted on the form that, under the agreement he signed in February 2017 with the company, he “receives a royalty payment for internet/media clicks on his name search and website.”
A ThinkProgress review of Arpaio’s official Facebook page revealed that he earned this revenue by frequently posting links to questionably accurate articles from the company’s clickbait sites Western Journalism and Conservative Tribune, as well as their Liftables.com site. He did not, however, indicate to his more than 600,000 followers that these links amounted to a paid endorsement. The posts made up the vast majority of his page’s content through 2017.
The Federal Trade Commission Act requires that those who accept payment to endorse a product disclose that fact. Staff at Federal Trade Commission confirmed to ThinkProgress that, “FTC’s Endorsement Guides define an ‘endorsement’ to mean ‘any advertising message … that consumers are likely to believe reflects the opinions, beliefs, findings, or experiences of a party other than the sponsoring advertiser.'” They added that “whether simply posting a link to an article without more counts as an ‘endorsement’ depends on how the poster’s audience understands the post.”
Since the links often contained praising comments like “This is huge” and “This is great,” readers might well have understood these posts to be an endorsement. But Arpaio did not include any disclaimer. According to the FTC, first violations of this law would result in an order to stop; subsequent infringements could be met with a fine of $41,000 per violation, per day.
Moreover, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed to ThinkProgress that the company’s terms of service “require compliance with all relevant laws and regulations,” so if the posts violated the Federal Trade Commission Act, they’d have also violated Facebook’s terms. In an email, the spokesperson also pointed to a policy on branded content that states that pages “must include all necessary disclosures to people using Facebook, such as any disclosures needed to indicate the commercial nature of content posted by you.”
Arpaio’s Senate campaign did not immediately respond to a ThinkProgress inquiry about the apparent violations.
Similar concerns were raised last year about paid promotional content by actor George Takei and others. At the time, Phyllis Marcus, a former FTC regulator and a consumer protection lawyer at Hunton & Williams, told the Guardian that such relationships have to be disclosed. “A consumer would want to know that they are seeing George Takei’s endorsement of a particular article because he was getting paid not because he organically found the article to be of interest,” she explained.
Though Arpaio made his name as a sheriff whose harsh treatment of people he considered lawbreakers verged on being cruel and unusual punishment, this would not be the first time he had engaged in illegal behavior of his own. Arpaio got into legal hot water with the U.S. Department of Justice for alleged civil rights violations. In 2017, he was found guilty of criminal contempt of court for ignoring an order to cease his racial profiling the state’s Latinx community — charges he dismissed as a “witch hunt.” He was pardoned weeks later by President Donald Trump — but by accepting the pardon, he admitted guilt.
Earlier this month, Vice President Mike Pence praised his fellow Republican as “a great friend of this president, a tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law, who spent a lifetime in law enforcement.”