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Dark money loophole in internet advertising enabled Russian meddling. We must close it.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress on April 10  about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress on April 10 about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election. AP

It took an attack on our democracy by Russians to finally get our attention, but it is still unclear whether we will do anything about it. The grilling of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg resulted in apologies but no clear commitment for congressional action.

In 2014, Ann Ravel — a former member of the Federal Election Commission and chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission before that — warned that the agency was turning a blind eye to the rapidly growing influence of the internet in politics.

craig holman.jpg
Craig Holman

"Some of my colleagues seem to believe that the same political message that would require disclosure if run on television should be categorically exempt from the same requirements when placed on the internet alone. As a matter of policy, this simply does not make sense," she said in a case in which a "dark money" group that refuses to disclose its funding sources paid for two YouTube ads attacking a candidate.

The FEC couldn't decide what to do. There remain no disclosures of campaign ads on one's own web page, or of other forms of paid campaign advertising on the internet, or of ads that do not expressly say vote for or vote against, or of bots, apps or dark money groups.

Then in 2016, campaign advertising on the internet skyrocketed, increasing eight-fold since 2012 to an all-time high of $1.4 billion. It is projected to rise to $1.9 billion in the 2018 midterm elections, 22 percent of all campaign ads.

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Meanwhile, the gaping dark money loophole in internet advertising has enabled extensive Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Facebook identified 470 fake social media accounts that produced some 3,000 political ads. Google, Twitter and YouTube also identified fake Russian accounts.

Americans want Congress and the FEC to require full disclosure of funding sources behind internet campaign ads. According to a new Marist poll, more than three in four Americans want to know who is paying for social media political ads, including 78 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of independents.

Embarrassed that it fell asleep at the wheel, the FEC has finally decided unanimously to consider strengthening its disclaimer requirements for internet campaign ads, but it is still constrained by the law.

A far more sweeping remedy is the Honest Ads Act before Congress. This legislation would require disclosure of the funding sources of all kinds of online political ads, clear and conspicuous disclaimers on such ads and public records of political ads, funders and their target audiences.

Facebook and Twitter have endorsed the bill; Google seems supportive. Yet it is no secret that these companies, which have dramatically boosted their lobbying in Congress, would prefer self-regulation.

Let's hope that Facebook, Twitter and Google are not saying one thing to the public – and urging Congress to back off behind closed doors. And let's hope Congress wakes up to the critical need to shed light on the often mysterious, and sometimes nefarious, forces behind online political advertising.

Craig Holman is the Capitol Hill lobbyist for Public Citizen. He can be contacted at cholman@citizen.org.
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