US election agency seeks views on rule change for digital ad platforms

The U.S. Federal Election Commission (FEC) has voted to seek public views on whether there should be a change to the rules for political ads that extends disclaimer requirements to ads shown on digital platforms, such as Facebook and Google.

At a meeting today the FEC voted to reopen public comment on the issue for a 30-day period. After which a spokeswoman told us it will review the comments and could decide to hold a hearing on a potential rule-making.

In a letter to the Commission, dated September 7, commissioner Ellen Weintraub urged the FEC to act, writing: “It is imperative that we update the [FEC’s] regulations to ensure that the American people know who is paying for the internet political communications they see. And it is our duty to have these changes in place in time to inform the 2018 elections.”

In her letter, Weintraub suggests holding a public hearing on the issue — and inviting representatives from major social media platforms, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, to attend and “explore with us how the FEC can craft the best possible internet disclaimer rules going forward”.

Although a Reuters report of the meeting says commissioners disagreed on the need for rule changes, so it’s not yet certain whether a public hearing will go ahead or not.

Much will, presumably, depend on the flavor of public comments the FEC receives.

Currently digital platforms are excluded from U.S. regulatory requirements to state who paid for a political ad. But questions have been raised about how viable it is for a democracy to allow large and powerful digital ad targeting platforms to be exempt from rules governing the use of political advertising — not least given the increasingly influential role of tech platforms in shaping media consumption.

A recent Pew study of American’s news consumption habits found two-thirds of U.S. adults reported getting at least some of their news on social media, while a fifth reported doing so “often”. It would not seem viable, over the long run, for social media to stand outside the regulatory regime for political ads.

Notably the FEC’s action comes just over a week after Facebook revealed that pro-Russian entities had bought as much as $150,000-worth of ads on its platform between 2015 and 2017, including in the run up to the U.S. presidential election.

The ads had apparently targeted a range of political — and socially divisive — issues, rather than directly seeking to promote individual candidates. Although Facebook has refused to release copies of the ads to the public so the content cannot be independently assessed — raising further questions about the ability of regulators to understand let alone control use of its platform for political ends.

The scandal has also led to calls for Facebook to #ReleaseTheAds

Commenting on the issue, Jeff Chester, of U.S. consumers rights and privacy organization, the Center for Digital Democracy, urged an end to exemptions from the rules for digital ad platforms.

“The FEC must require all digital ad companies to public disclose who paid for ads or other marketing used for political and electoral campaigns. As the two most powerful forces in political online advertising, and who consider election marketing a highly lucrative vertical, it is especially important that Facebook and Google be held more accountable,” he told TechCrunch.

As the two most powerful forces in political online advertising, and who consider election marketing a highly lucrative vertical, it is especially important that Facebook and Google be held more accountable.

“In addition the FEC should require each company to store and make public available every version of a political ad or message it delivers. In today’s cross-device, real-time and micro-targeting digital ad environment, thousands of different ad messages can be tailored.  These ads can even change depending on our behaviors and what device we use.

“Political advertising cannot be allowed to be in a “black box” that prevents journalists and others to examine the claims made by candidates and campaigns.  In addition, techniques like digitally-driven voter suppression and Facebook “dark” posts, used by the Trump campaign in 2016, illustrate how the U.S. requires 21st Century safeguards to ensure campaigns are conducted fairly.”

Facebook’s role in distributing and amplifying fake news came in for sharp criticism last year following the election of Donald Trump.

In the face of an angry backlash the company publicly acknowledged it needed to do more to stop the spread of misinformation on its platform.

Its efforts since have focused on experiments aimed at limiting the ability of misinformation to spread via the News Feed, including badging certain content as disputed — leaning on third party fact checkers to do the legwork there — and/or offering contrasting viewpoints.

These efforts have faced early criticism for being too tepid and/or slow to be effective, even as fresh fake news stories have shown a continued ability to rack up millions of Facebook views.

But the Russian-bought political ads scandal brings a new, sharper dimension to the misinformation debate — with money seen changing hands for the first time between Facebook and entities of a hostile foreign government intent on remotely influencing the political views of the voting American public at a key moment in a presidential election cycle.

U.S. congressional committees are currently investigation claims of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections — and Facebook has apparently handed the disputed ads to the special counsel investigating the allegations.

Earlier this week The Daily Beast also reported that Russian operatives had used Facebook’s platform — and specifically it’s Events management tool — to organize and promote political protests in the U.S. as well — including an August 2016 anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rally held in Idaho, ahead of the U.S. election in November. So the Facebook-enabled foreign influence appears to have extended to actual boots-on-the-ground political activism too.

One can imagine Russia’s Vladimir Putin — who continues to deny his government was involved in trying to influence the result of the U.S. election — smirking into his morning fruit juice at the deep irony of Kremlin operatives being able so easily, and so relatively cheaply, to tap the ad-targeting potency of U.S. digital infrastructure to further an anti-American foreign policy agenda from afar.

After the Daily Beast’s exposé, Facebook confirmed to Reuters it had shut down “several promoted events” as part of the takedown of the (undisclosed) number of Russian-affiliated pages which it had previously identified as being involved in buying political advertising.

But on Tuesday the company was criticized by U.S. Senator Mark Warner for failing to present the information about these Russian-organized events during a briefing last week with staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee which is investigating the allegations of election interference — opening itself up to further accusations that it’s not being adequately transparent, and that how it does business represents a risk to established democratic processes.

We’ve reached out to Facebook and Google with requests for comment but at the time of writing the companies had not responded. A Twitter spokeswoman declined to comment.