Would you click on that political ad if you knew it had been generated by a Russian troll farm? Probably not. But without knowing that? Well, you might. Indeed, we now know that millions of people did just that during the 2016 election. How can we prevent a repeat in 2018 and beyond? For our democracy to work, the American people need to know that the ads they see on their computer screens and in their social media feeds aren’t paid for by Russia or other foreign countries. There’s only one federal agency with the power to stem the flow of foreign money into political ads online: the Federal Election Commission, where I serve as a commissioner. On Thursday, we took a small step forward in that quest, but the news suggests we have much more work to do.
Last week brought hard evidence of what we’re up against. Facebook revealed to the House and Senate intelligence committees a secret Russian effort to buy $150,000 in political advertising aimed at influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), warned that this disclosure was just “the tip of the iceberg.”
This foreign plot, which went undetected through the entire election season, goes to the very heart of the FEC’s mission. The Facebook bombshell is solid evidence that foreign powers have the will to disrupt the American political process — and the ability to do it invisibly. People can argue in good faith about the merits of unbridled corporate spending in American elections. Me, I’m not such a big fan. But no reasonable person would grant full First Amendment rights to a Russian troll farm.