An advertisement on two Anchorage People Mover buses has been directing people to a website and social media platform peddling false, disproven claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
The city says that the ads for the site are allowable, and that it won’t take them down.
The ads have caught the attention of a few Anchorage Assembly members and members of the public who take issue with the advertisement’s implications and the disinformation the website spreads.
The ads direct people to the website FrankSpeech.com for “truth on 2020 election fraud.” The site is owned by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a close ally of former President Donald Trump and an outspoken promoter of false claims and conspiracy theories of election fraud. The homepage on Dec. 9 featured a video of Lindell interviewing Trump.
“CNN, MSNBC, FOX & the mainstream media will not tell you,” the ad says.
“I think it’s demonstrative of the national effort to continue arguing a falsehood, to sow dissent,” Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said, calling the ads “horrible.”
The ads were purchased by Anchorage resident Myong Jones, according to the contracts. A total of four began running in September, though under the current contract, which lasts through Jan. 2, just two are now running. So far, they’ve cost Jones $5,738, according to the contracts. She could not be reached for comment.
Jones’ husband, Kevin Jones, reached by phone, did not answer a question about whether the ads are part of a broader advertising campaign for the website.
“That really doesn’t matter, does it?” he said.
When asked whether he and his wife took out the ads on their own and why, he replied, “That’s my business. That’s not yours. It doesn’t matter.” He later said that “it’s just something that my wife wanted to do.”
In regards to Assembly members and others concerned with the ad: “Tell them to get some skin on their backs,” Jones said.
People Mover operates using federal dollars — and that means the city won’t take down the ad due to freedom of speech issues, according to Bart Rudolph, city transit planner and Public Transportation communications manager.
The city has published regulations about advertising on buses, he said, but it can only restrict ads if they violate one of the already-published advertising regulations, he said.
“The restrictions are fairly narrow and precise and beyond that we have basically established a ‘limited public forum’ for speech purposes. As such, the fact that something may be considered ‘controversial’ by some viewers is not a basis for refusing to take the ad,” Rudolph said by email.
When Assembly member Forrest Dunbar learned of the advertisements a few months ago, he contacted the director of Anchorage’s Public Transportation Department and asked if anything could be done about them. In response, Dunbar received an email from Municipal Manager Amy Demboski.
“These ads were vetted and approved by (municipality) Legal prior to them being placed on the buses,” Demboski said. Demboski also included the list of city regulations for advertising in the email.
Those regulations prohibit obscene, indecent or profane language, tobacco products, alcoholic beverages, marijuana products and promotion of illegal activities. City code also prohibits exhibition of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, indecent materials and content harmful to minors.
“We can’t pick and choose outside of that,” Rudolph said in an interview. “... If an ad does not violate one of those restrictions we cannot deny the ad … whether we agree with it or not.”
The city contracts its People Mover advertising through a third party, The Alaska Channel, a company that also sells ad space in airports around the state.
The company flags potentially problematic ads for the city, Rudolph said. In this case, the municipal attorney’s office reviewed the ad and determined that it didn’t violate the rules, he said.
But it’s possible that could change as the city reviews and updates its advertising restrictions.
The transportation department has been working with the Public Transit Advisory Board to update its restrictions on advertising policy and expects the new policy to be finished by January 2022, Rudolph said.
It has been working to “add more restrictions to prevent ads that, among other things, are false, fraudulent, misleading, or deceptive,” Rudolph said.
The updates could mean that the current FrankSpeech.com ad would no longer be allowable under the city’s policy — but that remains to be seen, he said. It depends on how the city defines the added terms in the policy.
“That’s what we’re working on now,” he said.
Constant said he’s heard many complaints from the public about the ads since they began running a few months ago. “It does give it the glow of public endorsement because it’s on a public facility,” he said.
However, Constant said he’s seen other bus ads over the years he thought were offensive but that the city allowed as free speech.
“As much as I disdain the message, as much as I think it’s the big lie, those ads (on buses) are potentially a free speech zone,” he said.