During the summer of 2016, Melvin Redick was — like many of us — posting his thoughts about the election on Facebook. Melvin’s profile painted a picture of an all-American family man from Harrisburg, Pa. He was a dad who liked baseball and cared about his country. But Melvin was hiding something: He wasn’t a real person. He was a fake account created to influence the U.S. electorate. We have since learned that there were thousands of Melvins, controlled by the Russians, posting on social media during the 2016 presidential election. And they weren’t just creating fake accounts to spread misinformation. They were also buying political advertisements designed to influence American voters. It is illegal for foreign entities to buy political ads in the United States. But that didn’t stop the purchase of thousands of political ads on Facebook, paid for — in rubles — by foreigners.
The reason is simple and scary: Our campaign finance laws have left open an enormous loophole for foreign actors to secretly violate our campaign finance laws and possibly influence our elections. It’s time we update the laws so that online platforms are held to the same transparency standards as other companies that sell political advertisements.
More than a decade ago, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act to regulate political advertisements. It’s the law that requires politicians to say, “I approve this message.” It also requires groups that run ads supporting or opposing a specific issue to disclose who paid for them, and it requires broadcasters to keep a file — available to the public — of the political advertisements they sell.