When Facebook revealed to investigators that a Kremlin-linked troll farm paid the company $100,000 for divisive political ads during the 2016 election, many saw the news as a bombshell. But in a year of unpredictable leaks, scandals and scoops, this just might be the least surprising news. Almost everybody with a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account saw a political advertisement on the internet last year. The opportunity for a political campaign is obvious. Internet ads give candidates and interest groups the ability to microtarget potential voters more effectively than TV, for far less money. Approximately two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news from social media, while print newspaper readership is a fraction of what it once was. And yet, policymakers for years have ignored or outright opposed the need to hold the internet advertising industry to the same standards the country has already agreed on for television and radio. Our campaign finance rules are outdated for the internet age, and rules on the books aren’t enforced. Now, with the revelation that Russia, too, sees the political value in America’s online advertising market, the chickens have come home to roost.
I warned that Vladimir Putin could meddle in our elections nearly three years ago, as vice chair of the Federal Election Commission, the federal agency charged with not only protecting the integrity of our election process, but ensuring disclosure of the sources of money in politics. Our vulnerabilities seemed obvious: The FEC’s antiquated policies refer to fax machines and teletypes, but barely mention modern technological phenomena like social media, YouTube and bots. The inadequacy of the FEC’s current regulations makes it practically impossible for both regulators and citizens to determine if the funding for a political advertisement online came from a domestic source or an enemy abroad. We had left the window wide open for foreign interference.
I suggested to the commission that the FEC consult with internet and tech experts to discuss how the agency’s current approach may or may not fit with future innovations. Starting this conversation should have been noncontroversial, especially at an agency whose very mission is to inform the public about the sources behind campaign spending.
But my comments were greeted with harassment and death threats stoked by claims by the three Republican commissioners that increased transparency in internet political advertising was censorship. Requiring financial disclosure, they argued, “could threaten the continued development of the internet’s virtual free marketplace of political ideas and democratic debate.” One commissioner went so far as to tell me that even talking about this subject at the commission would itself “chill speech.”