Dems Push for a Digital Ad Crackdown to Stop Foreign Meddling – WIRED
Democratic members of Congress are asking the Federal Elections Commission to crack down on digital campaign ads to prevent foreign meddling in future elections. In a letter to the FEC chairman, four members of the house and 16 senators—including Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris—urge the FEC to work with tech companies on new ways to monitor who’s paying for campaign ads on their platforms.
The letter follows the news earlier this month that Facebook found $150,000 worth of misleading political ads linked to Russian accounts that ran during the 2016 election. Facebook has handed those ads and information about the accounts over to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, as he probes any evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Now, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Republican Senator Richard Burr and Democratic Senator Mark Warner, say they expect Facebook to testify before a public hearing about the ads.
Those hearings may eventually help illuminate what happened in 2016, but it’s the 2018 midterm race that primarily concerns the letter’s signatories. “Foreign nationals were shown to have routinely deployed sophisticated tactics in making political expenditures to evade detection, with the express purpose of undermining the integrity of our elections,” the letter reads. “There is no reason to believe this behavior will stop in future elections.”
While the FEC closely regulates the ads that campaigns and political organizations run on television, requiring them to disclose who paid for the airtime, the same standards don’t apply to digital ads. The letter asks the FEC to look closely at “loopholes” that allow foreign actors to circumvent disclosure, as well as what disclosure standards should be put in place to ensure voters know where the ads are coming from. They’ve asked for a response by October 4.
“To be clear, our concerns do not lie with American citizens, interest groups, campaigns, or political action committees engaging in their Constitutional right to freely discuss the ideas and issues of the day to effectuate political or social change,” the letter reads. “Rather, we must address the threat posed by foreign citizens, companies, or organizations who aim to interfere with our political process.”
It’s a valid concern. But addressing it may prove far more complex than the members of Congress realize. Tech platforms don’t contain loopholes; they are one giant loophole. Open by default, they allow anyone to advertise from anywhere in the world, and there aren’t clear-cut lines defining what is and isn’t a political ad. Foreign actors also have ample ways to spread misinformation about political figures without ever spending a dime on the platforms. The algorithms that dominate these companies are, after all, trained to identify and prioritize viral content.
Still, there are ways these companies could use those same algorithms to better identify fake accounts, like the ones used to buy the Russia ads. And arguably, there ought to be some regulatory framework that requires tech companies like Facebook to, at the very least, share information about the known political organizations, including campaigns and super PACs, that spend money on their platforms.
Tech companies, ever resistant to regulation, would likely fight those efforts to monitor their businesses. Which is all the more reason they should take proactive measures to clean up the mess in their own backyards, before the government beats them to it.