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Congress needs to pass the bipartisan Honest Ads Act

REUTERS/Jason Reed
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.

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.

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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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/08/2017 - 09:46 pm.

    First, let’s make it clear: Russian ads couldn’t have affected elections if we consider that its spending was 0.01% of the total advertisement spending. Second, let’s stop pretending that people care who paid for the commercial – they just watch it and never pay attention to small print at the bottom of the screen. And third, the ads will not say “paid for by Vladimir Putin” or “paid for by the Russian government” but “paid for by Fight for Freedom committee,” which may, or may not, be supported by Putin but the viewer will never know.

    So really, we have just two choices to limit the influence foreign governments (and actually, everyone else, such as out of state wealthy people, for example) may have. First, teach people to ignore all political commercials and go for the actual sources. And second, have GOP and DFL agree that they would not be placing any commercials on TV or internet except one saying that they disapprove all messages other than the ones on their official websites. Can it work?

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/10/2017 - 11:20 am.

    Transparency isn’t really a solution.

    Transparency assumes voters care who pays for stuff and will factor that into their decisions. We know that’s not true, such information when available, is largely disregarded. A “transparent” environment that still produces false information and unfounded attacks isn’t really an improvement.

    I was hoping this would be an article about legislation that would actually require factual campaign material, alas this is just another call for another oblique approach to a concrete problem. Information can be verified, claims made in campaign material can be confirmed or disconfirmed. The problem isn’t that the Koch brother pay for stuff, the problem is that they sponsor disinformation and deception. If we want “honesty” in politics… we have to require and demand… honesty, oblique attempts at honesty via “transparency” have never produced actual honesty.

    What we need to do to is legally classify political speech on behalf of actual candidates and Parties as special speech that’s required to meet a minimum standard of factual accuracy. We also need to re-implement the equal time standards that existed prior to Ronald Reagan’s pen stroke in the mid 80s. If fallacious political ads produced at great expense triggered automatic FREE time for those would respond with facts and corrections, content creators and providers would face direct financial consequences and loss, AND bogus information would be revealed. That’s what real “honest’ politics would look like.

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