For the first time in American history, social media is an election issue. Its influence on our democratic process was thrust into the spotlight after Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election exploded into public consciousness, followed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal and a parade of data breaches, privacy concerns and ongoing manipulative business and advertising practices that leave American discourse more vulnerable than ever before.
As Twitter and Facebook hash out their political ad policies ahead of the 2020 vote, Democratic presidential candidates have seized on the issue. Most of the candidates have dealt in platitudes and left it at that: Do they support “breaking up" Big Tech? Would they encourage President Trump’s expulsion from Twitter?
Yet there is one who has championed a more nuanced approach to social media policy: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn).
Klobuchar is a co-sponsor of the Honest Ads Act, a pragmatic bill that, if passed, could begin a real discussion of social media regulation and its role in our fight against online influence campaigns. The legislation would require disclosure on online political ads so that voters can understand who is targeting them, why they were targeted and how much an advertiser spent to do so.
The bill has bipartisan support; its first incarnation was co-sponsored with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and the late John McCain (R-Ariz.). This year, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) joined Klobuchar and Warner. Despite this bipartisanship, and despite passing in the House as part of the Stopping Harmful Interference in Elections for a Lasting Democracy (SHIELD) Act , the bill has never received so much as a markup in the Rules Committee. Along with a group of other bills that aim to update voting infrastructure and otherwise protect the democratic process, it is currently trapped in legislative purgatory.
Congressional inaction on Honest Ads is even more inexplicable given that social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, have begun to voluntarily comply with portions of the bill. They could — as Honest Ads would require them to — go farther. Facebook’s ad library, for instance, reveals only the ages, genders and geographical data of those targeted by political advertisers, though its platform is capable of targeting at a much more granular level. It’s this information — whether users were targeted by interest or affinity groups, for example — that would be most useful for researchers identifying disinformation campaigns, which typically exploit societal fissures. The passage of Honest Ads into law would hold social media companies and advertisers accountable for lax enforcement or for skirting the rules. It would also act as a deterrent. Currently, Congress can only send sternly worded letters to social media platforms when they slip up. That does little to encourage compliance — and even less to deter foreign interference.
Advertising transparency is only part of the solution to the problem of online influence, however, and Klobuchar recognizes that. She has introduced legislation to protect users’ privacy online and obtain their informed consent for the use of their data, allowing them to opt out of targeted advertising. She has worked to ensure that online disinformation does not lead to voter suppression. And given that the most successful Russian content in 2016 was amplified organically, without the purchase of a single ad, she is leading a push to empower American citizens through digital citizenship and media literacy programs in schools, thus helping future generations to act more quickly to recognize the tactics of online manipulation.
None of these bills have been passed, or even made it out of committee. As for Honest Ads, Klobuchar pleaded with her fellow senators for unanimous consent on the bill in October. Online political advertising has “no rules of the road,” she told the Senate. “It is not only unfair, but it is criminal if this continues. It is so easy to do. This is something we could fix right away.”
Her motion was denied. The bill, like its siblings, languishes in committee. Klobuchar’s nuanced, common-sense proposals are aired only in 90-second, general talking points on the Democratic debate stage, almost invariably overpowered by bolder pronouncements. It’s America’s loss. Where we ought to be leading on addressing disinformation, we are lagging. Addressing online influence campaigns shouldn’t be an issue that concerns only the Democratic Party, but democracy overall.