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Congress needs to pass the bipartisan Honest Ads Act

Regardless if it’s a big-money super PAC or a Russian oligarch, every voter should know who is paying for the political ads they see on social media.

Regardless if it’s a big-money super PAC or a Russian oligarch, every voter should know who is paying for the political ads they see on social media.
REUTERS/Jason Reed

In a strong 21st-century American democracy, voters should have a right to know who is trying to influence their votes and opinions. Our votes are supposed to be based on who has the best ideas, and at the very least, those trying to influence our votes and political opinions should stand behind their ads.

Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera

Secret money from wealthy special interests and big donors paying for TV ads has grown in recent years, both at the local level in Minnesota and at the national level. In the 2016 election, however, a different kind of special interest was trying to influence our votes through a largely unregulated technology.

It has been well documented that the Russian government secretly tried to interfere in the 2016 election by setting up fake social media accounts to try to influence everyday Americans’ opinions, and at least $1.4 billion was spent on online political advertising in last year’s election. Voters were left in the dark about who was paying for these ads.

Companies’ promises aren’t enough

Representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google recently testified before Congress, promising to make a good-faith effort to increase transparency around who is spending money on political ads on their sites. While that is a good start, it is simply not enough. As history has told us, the honor system doesn’t always work in politics. Without strong and consistent rules in place, voters have no protections to ensure they have the full story of who is trying to sway their opinions. Regardless if it’s a big-money super PAC or a Russian oligarch, every voter should know who is paying for the political ads they see on social media.

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That’s why Congress needs to pass the Honest Ads Act, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.

Last month, Sen. Klobuchar introduced the Honest Ads Act with Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, and Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, to help ensure every voter knows who is behind the political ads they see on social media. It sounds like common sense because it is.

Largely unregulated

Unlike TV and radio advertisements, online advertising is largely unregulated. The Honest Ads Act simply updates federal campaign finance law to require internet and digital advertisements to play by similar rules as those that air on TV and radio. It also requires big online platforms, like Facebook and Google, to keep track of and and make a public file of political advertising so voters can who is paying for election-related ads on their websites.

In addition to congressional action, the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which is tasked with enforcing campaign finance laws, recently voted 5-0 to begin considering revised common-sense rules for disclosing who is paying for online political ads. The FEC acted after more than 150,000 citizens — Republicans, Democrats, and independents — filed comments with the FEC encouraging it to do so. The FEC rulemaking is a start, but by no means does it supplant the need for Congress to act on Senator Klobuchar’s Honest Ads Act. Modernizing our election laws and increasing transparency is not a partisan issue. It is supported by voters across the political spectrum.

Russian ads meant to divide us

Millions of voters were exposed to secret Russian ads on Facebook, Twitter, and Google last year, without knowing Russia was behind those ads. The ads often focused on dividing us as Americans, instead of bringing us together to tackle the many issues our country faces.

While the Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election were primarily focused on helping Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin is not a Democrat or Republican. His only stake in the game is to create chaos and undermine our democracy. Next time it could be Republicans that Russia goes after.

Our only defense against foreign interference in our elections is to come together and act. That’s what Sens. Klobuchar, Warner, and McCain are doing by introducing the Honest Ads Act. For the good of our country, the rest of Congress should immediately join them and support this bipartisan bill.

Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera is the executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy.


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