As a response to the Russian campaign to sow discord in the 2016 presidential election, the so-called Honest Ads Act is wholly inadequate. It is also entirely necessary.
The legislation, introduced last week by Democratic senators Mark Warner of Virginia and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, requires online platforms with at least 50 million monthly users -- think Facebook, Google and Twitter -- to make a public record of advertisers who spend at least $500 on political ads regarding campaigns or significant legislative issues. The record would include information regarding the ad's content, its target audience and its cumulative views, as well as its cost. It would also list any candidate referred to in the ad and contact information for the entity that purchased it.
All this information would be placed in a publicly accessible database. Under the legislation, platforms would be required to make "reasonable efforts" to police foreign purchases.
True, this legislation focuses solely on advertising, so would not have prevented some of the most successful subversions of the 2016 election -- the Russian propaganda that spread over social networks as unpaid media. Still, a U.S. defense against election interference has to begin somewhere. Russians spent at least $100,000 on Facebook ads. Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said he believes such spending constitutes the "tip of the iceberg."
The challenge will only grow more complex as the internet becomes an ever-larger conduit for political communication. Digital spending reached $1.4 billion in the 2016 election, up more than 700 percent over 2012.
Representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter will testify before House and Senate panels next week. They should come prepared with suggestions on how their powerful, pervasive and lucrative platforms can help root out foreign agents seeking to undermine American democracy, through paid advertising and otherwise. It's not an impossible task: Internet platforms shut down thousands of suspicious accounts during last spring's French election.
Requiring online platforms to perform the minimal record-keeping and due diligence required of television and radio stations is a necessary step toward protecting the integrity of U.S. elections. This is a cause that transcends both commercial and partisan concerns -- the bill has the support of Republican Senator John McCain. Congress should pass the Honest Ads Act. Then build on it.
If there was ever a piece of no-brainer legislation that should be passed by Congress, it is the Honest Ads Act put forward last week by US senators Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner and John McCain. This bipartisan group is asking for online political advertising to be subject to the same rules of disclosure as ads on television, print, and radio. The idea is to make sure that foreign nations like Russia cannot use platforms such as Facebook, Google or Twitter to influence US elections, as they did in 2016.
The legislation is necessary for three reasons. First, it would even the playing field between platform companies and the rest of the media industry. This is long overdue. Google and Facebook together take roughly 85 per cent of all new digital advertising revenue. For years, they have come up with absurd excuses for why they should not be subject to the same rules as everyone else (online ads are too small to include disclaimers; it is too tough to figure out if ads are commercial or political, and so on).
Their reasoning does not hold water. These businesses have traditionally been just fine using the smallest of small print on privacy policies, so it should not be too much trouble to do the same thing with political disclosures. And if it is too tough to figure out what is political, play it safe and disclose everything.
Of course they do not want to do that, because opacity is a key part of what political operatives are paying for. That is reason number two that this legislation should pass — it would go some way towards cleaning up dark money and influence in politics.
Online advertising is hyper-targeted. That is the whole appeal. We get to see things that are meant for our eyes only. Rather than clear, broad messages that are put where everyone can see them, online advertising can play to the deepest fears of individuals, allowing them to be exploited with divisive or hateful messages that could be much more easily called out and debunked if they were, say, being shown on national TV or in a print advertisement in a major paper.
Indeed, as one political insider put it to me, it is not just the Russians, but our politicians themselves who want to keep their advertising in the dark. Consider, for example, the Trump campaign’s xenophobic pre-election posts on Facebook. The US president is somewhat singular in that he does not seem to mind openly dog-whistling. But others might well be deterred from taking the low road if they could be openly named and shamed for doing so.
The third reason the Honest Ads Act should pass is it would be a step towards reframing the regulatory debate around Big Tech. Large and powerful industries and companies that enjoy monopoly rents often like to portray themselves as “special” or “different”, and thus in need of a separate set of rules.
After a time, this idea of a separate playing field gets normalised. Monopolists also use complexity to obfuscate clear debate about what they are actually doing, and whose interests they are serving. I cannot tell you how many conversations I have had with fast talking financiers — and more recently, technologists — who try to throw as much jargon against the wall as fast as possible to see what sticks.
Yet the best questions are often the simplest ones. In the case of the financial sector, it was and remains: “What is the industry doing that is good for the real economy, versus what is good only for the financial industry?” We await a clear answer there. In the case of Big Tech, we might start with the question: “Are you playing by the same rules as everyone else, and if not, why not?”
The answer to the first question is clearly no. I hope that the Honest Ads Act will pass, and that lawmakers will move on to examining Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which says that platforms are not responsible for what their users post.
It is a get-out-of-jail free clause which has protected the industry from all sorts of legal issues that most businesses deal with every day, and is as outdated and unfair as the loopholes around political ad disclosure online.
Regulators should also look a lot more carefully at whether the M&A practices of the tech titans are anti-competitive. Consider Facebook’s recent purchase of tbh, a polling app aimed at teenagers, on which 5m users have posted 1bn questions since its launch three months ago.
As Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, a think-tank, tweeted: “Facebook is buying a competitor that undercuts its data-harvesting business model. FTC [the US Federal Trade Commission] should block this merger.”
I also hope that lawmakers will begin to educate themselves more thoroughly about the 21st-century digital economy. There are a handful of politicians who have done so. But not many.
I recently asked one high-level software developer from a Big Tech company, someone who frequently visits Washington, to rank technological understanding among not only Congress members, but among the Capitol Hill staffers who brief them. On a scale of zero to 10, he put that understanding at “negative 10”.
That is great for his company. But it is dangerous for the rest of us, because understanding Big Tech is now crucial to understanding not only politics, but the economy at large.
Kudos to Arizona’s Sen. John McCain for stepping up to co-sponsor the Honest Ads Act, which would force Facebook, Google and other online companies to play by the same rules as older media, and disclose who’s paying for political advertising.
The bill’s Democratic sponsors, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Mark Warner (Va.), are motivated by fury in their party over Russian meddling in an election that Hillary Clinton lost. But in reality, this is about far more than stopping foreign interference in US politics.
Back when today’s disclosure rules were written in 2002, Internet ads weren’t a factor. Now they are: Indeed, Trump campaign guru Kellyanne Conway cites the Clinton team’s ineptness with them as a key to the outcome.
More than $1 billion-with-a-b went for digital political ads last year, and the figure is sure to soar in the future. It would be insane not to demand transparency going forward.
Online firms may claim it’s particularly hard for them to enforce or execute disclosure — but that’s their problem. They reap endless benefits from their no questions asked as long as you’ve got the cash approach; too bad if it doesn’t serve them well here.
Facebook has actually claimed that figuring out whether an ad is commercial or political is just too challenging. Write some algorithms, folks. Or hire some more live bodies if the robots just can’t hack it.
Big Tech knows it can’t continue to fly under the radar here — but its lobbyists are at work looking to minimize the impact of new laws. Ironically, one top fixer is Marc Elias, a senior adviser to the Hillary campaign, who for years has been helping Google and Facebook request exemptions from Federal Election Commission rules.
In addition to the Senate bill, the FEC is taking a fresh look at how its regulations apply to Internet ads. It plainly needs to move past its 2006 ruling that these involve “a unique and evolving mode of mass communication and political speech that is distinct from other media in a manner that warrants a restrained regulatory approach.”
But Congress should act, too — and other Republicans should join McCain in insisting on it. This is too important to let the tech lobbyists score continued special treatment.
Whether the Trump presidential campaign colluded with Russian agents to tip the 2016 presidential campaign is an open question, but there is no doubt of Russian interference.
One of the main ways that Russian agents attempted to influence the election was through tightly targeted ads on social media sites such as Facebook. For example, Facebook has turned over to Congress about 3,000 ads steeped in political dirty tricks. One purported to be in behalf of a nonexistent Muslim group supporting Hillary Clinton, another falsely claimed to represent Black Lives Matter. Facebook alone said it had identified 470 pages and accounts engaged in the activity, which generated about $100,000 in ad revenue.
Identifying the true sources of political advertising is in everyone’s interest. A candidate who benefits from such a campaign today could be stung by it tomorrow. And voters, as a general principle, deserve to know the actual sources of the pitches that they receive.
Wednesday, Sen. John McCain of Arizona became the first Republican to cosponsor the Honest Ads Act, which was introduced by Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mark Warner of Virginia. It would create disclosure standards for online political ads.
Congress should approve the bill and use it as a catalyst to eliminate “dark money” by establishing full disclosure of all contributions used for political advocacy.
Thanks to a recent revelation from Google, we now know that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube—three of the most prominent online platforms in the U.S.—sold political ads to the Russians ahead of the 2016 election.
Congress has long been concerned about foreign spending in our elections, which it sees as a national security issue: It banned such spending in the 1966 congressional amendments to the Foreign Agents Registration Act. But the law hasn’t kept up with technology, creating a loophole that allowed the Russians to purchase ads without detection in 2016.
The loophole exists because the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which was passed in 2002, only refers to broadcast, cable, and satellite communications in its definition of “electioneering communications”—that is, political advertisements that attack or praise a candidate without explicitly urging the viewer to vote for or against her. BCRA required the purchaser of such advertisements on TV or radio to be disclosed, and amended the original Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 to prohibit foreign nationals (and governments) from engaging in such political spending. But BCRA didn’t mention internet advertisements—which is unsurprising since they barely existed at the time.
The revelations about Russian ads online have fueled calls for Congress to revisit campaign finance law as it applies to the internet and make sure we find a way to prevent Russia, or any other foreign power, from spending on political ads in the United States again.
On Thursday, we took a step in the right direction. Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain, and Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner have introduced the bipartisan Honest Ads Act. The bill creates a framework for updating campaign finance law for the 21st century, making a broader swath of online activity subject to transparency requirements and the ban on spending by foreign nationals.
The Honest Ads Act does this by expanding the definition of “electioneering communication” to include paid political advertisements online. It also requires major internet platforms to maintain a public database of all such communications purchased by a person or group if they spend more than $500. The company would include a digital copy, a description of the audience targeted, and the rate charged for each ad. Finally, the act requires online platforms to make all reasonable efforts to ensure that foreign citizens and powers are not purchasing political advertisements, just as radio and television broadcasters are already required to do.
Of course, the Honest Ads Act is not a silver bullet. The ad purchases on Facebook, Google, and Twitter were a brazen undertaking. The act would close off some avenues that the Russians used in 2016, but Moscow could in the future—and let’s not kid ourselves, may have in 2016—also purchase political ads through “dark money” groups. Thanks in part to Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United, these groups can take unlimited contributions from donors without having to disclose them.
The good news is that this problem, too, has a legislative solution. The DISCLOSE Act, versions of which have been introduced in Congress since 2010, would eliminate dark money as we know it. At its core, the legislation would require any group that spent above a threshold amount on elections to disclose its major donors of $10,000 or more.
Even without the passage of the DISCLOSE Act or similar legislation, the Honest Ads Act can play an important role in exposing and limiting the influence of Russian and other foreign election propaganda online. That is in large measure thanks to the work of nongovernmental organizations and the media, which have begun to expose how Russian political propaganda is influencing the political discourse in the United States.
A year ago, the Honest Ads Act would have zero chance of passage.
To take one example, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, an initiative from the German Marshall Fund, recently debuted a web resource called Hamilton 68, which tracks the spread of Russian propaganda on Twitter based on a list of 600 accounts that have amplified Russian state messages in the past. If we were to combine that tool with the repository of political ads that the Honest Ads Act would create, we should be better able to see how messages being pushed by the Kremlin are making their way into political ads and which potential voters are seeing them.
Of course, whether the Honest Ads Act will pass is far from clear. A year ago, the bill would have zero chance of passage and would have been firmly opposed by the major social media platforms. Today, with growing public disgust at Russia’s ability to covertly purchase political ads, there just may be an opportunity to close a gaping loophole that should never have existed in the first place. The New York Times reports that the “[t]ech Industry is mobilizing an army of lobbyists and lawyers … to help shape proposed regulations,” but the uniform opposition from the platforms themselves may have broken. Erin Egan, Facebook’s vice president for United States public policy, seemed to concede the possibility of a change in the law, telling the Times, “We look forward to continuing the conversation with lawmakers as we work toward a legislative solution” to “achieve transparency in political advertising.”
No doubt the odds of passing a new rule with teeth are long. But the bipartisan introduction of the bill, with the joint participation of McCain, is an encouraging sign. It was his leadership in the early 2000s that led to the passage of BCRA, the last major piece of campaign finance legislation passed by Congress.
As a relatively new medium for mass communication with few international boundaries, the internet (especially social media) presents unique challenges to the long-standing American interest in limiting the ability of unfriendly foreign governments to interfere with our elections. Ultimately, responding to this threat is going to take a multipronged effort involving both government and civil society, including the social media platforms and search engines themselves.
The passage of the Honest Ads Act would not make it impossible for the Russians or others to interfere in our next elections. But it would be a critical component of our effort to fight back by both eliminating opportunities for hidden foreign spending and providing American audiences with vital information on who’s trying to manipulate them. And having our leaders come together to strengthen our democracy’s defenses would send a powerful signal that we’re serious about addressing that threat.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture.