When Facebook revealed to investigators that a Kremlin-linked troll farm paid the company $100,000 for divisive political ads during the 2016 election, many saw the news as a bombshell. But in a year of unpredictable leaks, scandals and scoops, this just might be the least surprising news.
Almost everybody with a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account saw a political advertisement on the internet last year. The opportunity for a political campaign is obvious. Internet ads give candidates and interest groups the ability to microtarget potential voters more effectively than TV, for far less money. Approximately two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news from social media, while print newspaper readership is a fraction of what it once was.
And yet, policymakers for years have ignored or outright opposed the need to hold the internet advertising industry to the same standards the country has already agreed on for television and radio. Our campaign finance rules are outdated for the internet age, and rules on the books aren’t enforced. Now, with the revelation that Russia, too, sees the political value in America’s online advertising market, the chickens have come home to roost.
I warned that Vladimir Putin could meddle in our elections nearly three years ago, as vice chair of the Federal Election Commission, the federal agency charged with not only protecting the integrity of our election process, but ensuring disclosure of the sources of money in politics. Our vulnerabilities seemed obvious: The FEC’s antiquated policies refer to fax machines and teletypes, but barely mention modern technological phenomena like social media, YouTube and bots. The inadequacy of the FEC’s current regulations makes it practically impossible for both regulators and citizens to determine if the funding for a political advertisement online came from a domestic source or an enemy abroad. We had left the window wide open for foreign interference.
I suggested to the commission that the FEC consult with internet and tech experts to discuss how the agency’s current approach may or may not fit with future innovations. Starting this conversation should have been noncontroversial, especially at an agency whose very mission is to inform the public about the sources behind campaign spending.
But my comments were greeted with harassment and death threats stoked by claims by the three Republican commissioners that increased transparency in internet political advertising was censorship. Requiring financial disclosure, they argued, “could threaten the continued development of the Internet’s virtual free marketplace of political ideas and democratic debate.” One commissioner went so far as to tell me that even talking about this subject at the commission would itself “chill speech.”
Not only was it taboo to suggest that the FEC adapt to the times, the commission was barely interested in enforcing rules already in place. In one instance, Republican commissioners had blocked enforcement of a law that explicitly prohibits foreign interference in U.S. elections, despite clear evidence that foreign nationals had spent large sums of money to influence a California ballot measure. Next, they blocked attempts to strengthen FEC regulations to protect the integrity of our political process when there is evidence of foreign contributions. This intransigence, in the face of open interference by foreign nationals, might as well have been a giant neon sign announcing to hostile actors worldwide that there would be no consequences for illegally meddling in American elections.
But that was before the 2016 election, before the mounting evidence of Russian disinformation operations designed to disrupt our political process. Surely the FEC has changed its response as new facts have come to light?
Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. When a reporter asked about the Russian Facebook ads, the new vice chair of the FEC defended the refusal to enforce the law or implement new policies. She and her GOP colleagues, she explained, “are concerned about protecting first amendment rights to participate in the political process.” Whose rights are being protected? Those of the American public, or the rights of the Russians to spend money to covertly manipulate public opinion and affect our elections?
The First Amendment defense isn’t just a shameful excuse to do nothing—it’s bewildering. Requiring transparency in political advertising, like we already do for television and radio, doesn’t limit anyone’s free speech. Enforcing the law and updating policy, on the other hand, defends democracy and the electoral process. For years, we’ve done neither, and we now know that our democracy has been under attack.
To prevent another attack, and provide voters with information about who is behind efforts to sway their votes, we should adopt policies mandating the disclosure of the source of advertisements. Social media platforms posting paid advertisement should label them and take steps to verify the ad’s true source. In the same way a bank is required to know its customer to protect the financial system from exploitation by drug traffickers, arms dealers and other criminals, Facebook ought to determine if a hostile foreign actor is trying to buy access to exploit our political system. Anyone purchasing online campaign ads should certify that their expenditures are not violating campaign finance laws. And once this information is made available to the government and to citizens, they can judge for themselves the credibility of the source. In cases of money laundering and improper foreign influence, government agencies would have the intelligence they need to conduct investigations.
These aren’t extreme proposals. We already require disclosure in television and radio. And 75 percent of Americans agree that groups spending money during a political campaign should publicly disclose their contributors.
Without disclosure, Russian meddling isn’t the only consequence for our country. The courts have made clear that financial transparency promotes accountability in the political process and allows the public to make informed choices among candidates, as well as sniff out corruption. Given that the FEC and some in Congress have eroded disclosure, it should surprise nobody that trust in government is at an all-time low. The Russia scandal will only deepen that distrust.
If we want to restore trust in our political system, we should also put a real cop on the beat. Facebook’s admission that it traced paid political messages to a Russian troll farm was prompted by the government’s ongoing investigations into Russia’s role in the 2016 election. Eventually, these investigations will end and Congress will move on to the next problem. The FEC, taken hostage by an ideological bloc that remains unwilling to use the agency’s existing authority, will do little to nothing to prevent future meddling.
Until the FEC gets its act together (if ever), it’s up to civil society to exert pressure on the social media platforms to take responsible action. Nothing prohibits Facebook from vetting its advertisers and requiring transparency from those seeking to post political ads on its platform. And nothing prohibits Facebook from voluntarily doing what it did earlier this month—tracing the source of paid political ads and making that information available to its users and investigators.
As history has always shown, Americans answer the call in defense of democracy. In response to the growing body of evidence showing Russian interference and exploitation of our freedoms to undermine democratic institutions, it is time that we answer that call again.
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