FEC Will Take Up Online Political Ad Transparency


The Federal Election Commission may soon require online ads that urge viewers to vote for or against a specific candidate to include a disclaimer about where they originated.

Recognizing that foreign powers will continue targeting U.S. elections, tech industry and government leaders are exploring ways to expose online misinformation campaigns before they can reach American voters.

While no single solution is foolproof, they said, a mixture of legislative and private-sector policy changes can begin bolstering elections against outside influence.

“Throughout the 21st century, our adversaries will continue to use cyber warfare, and we need to be prepared to defend our networks against these threats no matter where they come from,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said Monday at the Internet Society’s State of the Net conference. “Nothing could be less partisan than securing the future of our elections and the freedoms those elections preserve.”

After it came to light that Russians used online platforms like Facebook and Twitter to spread misinformation during the 2016 presidential election, Klobuchar and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., introduced a bill that would require platforms to disclose who pays for political advertisements on their sites. While Democrats try to drum up more bipartisan support for the Honest Ads Act, other groups have already begun changing the rules to curb the influence of foreign powers.

Recently, the Federal Election Commission unanimously agreed to begin drafting a rule to mandate all express advocacy ads—which urge viewers to vote for or against a specific candidate—posted online contain a disclaimer about where they originated. The measure would have a narrower scope than the Klobuchar-Warner bill, which applies to ads beyond express advocacy, but it’s a “baby step” toward greater election transparency, said FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub.

She said providing such information will help people evaluate ads and give the agency more information to work with if someone brings a potentially illegal ad to their attention. Weintraub said she’s spent years pushing for such reforms, but the 2016 election got more people on board.

“I think that we’ve reached a point where, with all the information that’s come out about foreign intervention in our elections, it becomes very hard for anybody in power to say ‘I’m not going to do anything,’” Weintraub told Nextgov. She said she hopes the commission will vote on the provision before the November midterms.

Though Facebook pushed back against the Honest Ads Act, the company is launching a multi-pronged effort to keep bad actors from using the platform to manipulate voters in the U.S. and abroad.

In Canada, Facebook is testing a pilot program that shows users each of the ads displayed on a given page, which Global Politics and Government Outreach Director Katie Harbath said would roll out globally later this year. The company is also finalizing policies for labeling political ads as such and creating an archive that holds political ads for four years after they run including demographic information on users who saw the ad, according to Harbath.

She said Facebook is also looking for ways to take down more fake accounts and remove economic incentives for the people promoting misinformation campaigns.

Though more must be done to target the underlying issue of foreign powers trying to stir unrest in the U.S., Weintraub said increasing political ad transparency is the most important thing the government can do as the 2018 election approaches.

“It’s all about disclosure,” she said. “You know where the information is coming from and it allows citizens to make smart choices.”