As Americans have learned since the last election, Internet ads can race halfway around the world before truth-squadders are even aware of their existence, much less who paid for them. But we now know that in the 2016 campaign cycle, at least 3,000 digital ads that ran on Facebook were linked to Russia, and more than 450 Facebook profiles were tied to Russian operatives, who spent an estimated $100,000 on those ads. And that Russians also spent considerable sums for advertising on Gmail and YouTube.
That’s valuable information to have, but it is scant comfort to learn it long months after the votes were counted. This country must do better to safeguard future elections.
The Federal Election Commission, never good at acting until it has to, in part because it often finds itself in partisan gridlock, has been caught flatfooted by the outside deluge of online ads. So, too, were the social media companies themselves. Embarrassed by post-election revelations, they are now promising to do more on their own to scrutinize ads, perhaps as a way to forestall new laws or regulations. Expect them to underline their planned ad-policing efforts when executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter testify before House and Senate intelligence committees on Wednesday. But given their past asleep-at-the-switch performances and the too-little, too-late nature of those initiatves, leaving ad oversight to them is hardly a promising course.
Specifically, paid Internet ads related to campaigns or elections would have to have clear and conspicuous disclaimers saying what entity was paying for them, the same way TV, radio, and print ads do. Further, those ads would have to include easy access to the name and street address, telephone number, or web address of the ad purchaser.
Additionally, any website with 50 million or more monthly users would be required to provide the FEC with digital copies of the ads from any entity that spends more than $500 on them and to detail the amount of spending, the audience targeted, the period during which they ran, the rates charged, the number of views generated, and the contact information of the purchaser. Those social media companies would also be required to make reasonable efforts to ensure that foreign entities weren’t buying ads on their platforms in an attempt to influence US elections.
“This would be a real step forward in providing transparency,” says Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy at Common Cause. “It is not a panacea, but it is a critical step toward updating the law.”
The hope is that the proposed law would have two effects. First, by mandating more transparency, it should make foreign agents more cautious about attempting to interfere in US elections via digital ads. Second, by requiring greater information, it should give media outlets and other interested parties a way to discern who is behind those ads.
As the favored candidate of Russia and a man who can barely force himself to acknowledge the Russian election-
interference efforts, President Trump can’t be counted on to play any kind of leading role in passing this legislation. That will be left to Congress.
The danger is that this will come to be seen as a partisan issue. It isn’t and shouldn’t be. In the 2016 election cycle, we saw a serious attack on American democracy. Efforts to prevent a second such occurrence need to be pursued with bipartisan determination.