A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill Thursday that would require online political advertisers to provide additional disclosures about who’s paying for their ads, but the measure may prove to be a half-step toward preventing foreign adversaries from influencing US elections online.
During a press conference Thursday, Democratic senators Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar introduced the much-anticipated Honest Ads Act, cosponsored by Republican senator John McCain.
“Our entire democracy was founded on the simple idea that the people in our country should be self-governing,” Klobuchar said. “Now, 240 years later, our democracy is at risk. Russia attacked our elections, and they and other foreign powers and interests will continue to divide our country if we don’t act now.”
The bill arrives amid continuing revelations about how Russian operatives used tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google, to advertise political messages to American voters around the 2016 election. The bill is the first move by Congress to require political advertisers online to comply with the same disclosure standards already required of broadcast, radio, and print advertisers. But the design of digital platforms—which, unlike radio and television, allow virtually anyone to create content—means rules aimed only at advertisements will have limited effect.
“It’s a good piece of legislation to address the modern realities of campaign financing and the need for disclosure,” says Adam Sharp, former head of news, government, and elections at Twitter. “But I’m skeptical of how it will tamp down on behavior by bad actors like we saw in the 2016 election.” Warner himself described the bill as “common sense light-touch regulation.”
The bill amends the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which governs political ad spending. It would require tech platforms with at least 50 million monthly users in the United States to “maintain and make available for online public inspection” a record of advertisers who spend at least $500 on the platform for advertising on campaign issues or issues of “national legislative importance.” Those ads would be required to include disclosures citing who paid for them. The bill leaves it up to the platforms to decide how to implement those disclosures, requiring only that the recipients of ads can access the information with “minimal effort.”
The publicly available record would include an ad’s content, a description of the target audience, the number of views, and the date it was first and last displayed. It would also include the average rate charged for the ad, the name of the candidate mentioned, if any, and contact information for the purchaser of the ad. Platforms would have to compile these records “as soon as possible” and retain them for four years. Finally, it would require platforms to make “reasonable efforts” to ensure foreign entities aren’t behind those ads.
The legislation aims to address a major regulatory blind spot that has left online political ads virtually unregulated, largely as a result of government inaction. In 2011 Facebook asked the Federal Election Commission for an exemption to rules that would have required it to include disclosures on every political ad detailing who paid for the ad. Facebook argued the rule was impractical and that Facebook ads ought to be regulated as “small items,” like campaign buttons and pens, which require no such disclaimers. The FEC was split and never reached a decision. Ever since, Facebook and other platforms have not required disclaimers from political advertisers.
Now that lack of oversight is drawing harsh scrutiny after the company revealed that a Russian propaganda group known as the Internet Research Agency created 470 fake Facebook accounts with which it purchased $100,000 worth of politically divisive ads aimed at Americans. Twitter has similarly pinpointed roughly 200 accounts linked to the same propaganda group, in addition to hundreds of bot accounts that researchers say have direct connections to Russian operatives. Meanwhile, Google has reportedly discovered at least $4,700 worth of ads linked to Russian influence groups.
The new bill would modernize the regulatory environment so that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other tech platforms require the same disclosures of political advertisers as other media. “This is a substantive legislative proposal that addresses the online disclosure gap that we and other good-government advocates and campaign-finance experts have talked about for years,” says Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency advocacy group.
Substantive as this legislation may be in addressing advertising, though, it’s far from comprehensive. The most effective way to influence people online often is not through ads, but with viral content.
Facebook says that the ads purchased by those Russia-linked pages reached some 10 million people. But researchers say the unpaid, organic posts created by those same pages reached many times that number. According to Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, just six of the 470 fake account pages that Facebook identified reached roughly 340 million people through regular Facebook posts, eliciting some 19.1 million interactions in the form of likes, shares, and comments.
Albright says it’s unclear whether the Russians paid to “boost” any of those posts, a form of advertising that guarantees the post will be shown to more people. Even if they did, once the posts were published, they took on a life of their own. On the pro-veteran page Being Patriotic, which Facebook identified as being connected to Internet Research Agency, one post read, “At least 50,000 homeless veterans are starving, dying in the streets, but liberals want to invite 620,000 refugees and settle them among us.” It received more than 724,000 shares, likes, and comments.
“When you say ‘ads’ people think of a display ad. When really this is more insidious,” says Albright. “It’s content. It’s news.”
At a time when anyone can start a media company overnight and use Facebook to expand its audience, there’s little reason for someone to register a Super PAC and comply with whatever oversight comes with it, says Andrew Bleeker, CEO of Bully Pulpit Interactive, who ran Hillary Clinton’s digital-advertising operation. “I’m not worried about the Trump campaign,” he says. “I’m worried about the billionaire who, rather than starting a Super PAC, starts a media company that’s not regulated, because there are huge free speech issues.”
On Wednesday, the Daily Beast reported that members of President Trump’s inner circle, including campaign digital director Brad Parscale, adviser Kellyanne Conway and Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., retweeted posts from an account called @Ten_GOP before the election. That account has since been reported by the news outlet to be Russian propaganda and was suspended by Twitter. Whether the retweets were innocent mistakes or intentional is something investigators will, no doubt, examine.
The point is: organic posts can do just as much damage as ads, and the Honest Ads Act does very little address that fact. Not that it could. These open platforms now pervade our lives, and there’s likely no amount of legislation that could stop a malicious actor from exploiting them. “Like a lot of regulation, the good actors who follow the rules wind up being boxed in and the bad actors don’t care and will find other ways around it,” Sharp says.
One problem, Sharp says, is that the sponsors are rhetorically framing what is essentially a campaign-finance reform bill as national-security legislation. That’s largely to do with the fact that the Democratic senators who first drafted the bill wanted Republican support—in this case, from McCain—in order to introduce it. “On the Republican side there’s resistance to additional campaign finance regulation, but some receptiveness to the idea that this is necessary from a national-security standpoint,” says Sharp.
Klobuchar acknowledged as much during the press conference. “If you ask John McCain why he would get involved in a bill like that,” she said, “his main answer would be: national security.”
While this bill may not stop every foreign adversary who might like to infiltrate American elections, Albright says there are ways in which it could be improved. He suggests that in addition to making “reasonable efforts” to identify foreign entities attempting to advertise on their platforms, tech companies should be required to tell individual users if they have been exposed to ads purchased by a foreign entity. It would be similar to the way, say, businesses are required to alert customers of a data breach.
In some cases, Albright says, the Russians may have been able to amass equally, or more, sensitive information from users from their phony pages. One post on the page, LGBT United, asked members, “Straight girls, would you ever experiment with a lesbian?”
“People commented back,” Albright says. “Facebook needs to reach out to every single person who provided anything on those pages.” Right now, there’s a petition circulating on Change.org demanding Facebook do that.
Facebook, for its part, has announced changes to its election integrity policies. Going forward, it will require political ads to disclose on an ad who paid for it, and it will create a public repository of different variations of ads, which will be housed on the advertiser’s Page. But questions remain about how, exactly, these new policies will be implemented and what will constitute a political ad. On Nov. 1, representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter will appear at two congressional hearings to answer questions about how Russia was able to use their services to influence the election.
Whether the Honest Ads Act makes it through a highly divided Congress already saddled with addressing marquee issues like the budget, the healthcare system, and immigration, is unclear. But if it does advance, the bill ought to be the beginning, not the end, of the conversation.