WHEN FACEBOOK decided to provide data on fake Russian accounts to the congressional committees investigating election interference, it also announced a plan to increase transparency of political advertisements on its platform. From now on, Facebook users will be able to see which accounts are promoting the messages they see and which other ads those accounts are running — information that will decrease the secrecy that allowed Russian ads to run unnoticed. These disclosures will be valuable, but a private company’s assurances are no replacement for government reforms to protect elections.
Existing federal regulations place stricter requirements on political ads on radio and television than those on the Internet. There’s a reason for that: The use of online advertising in political campaigns has spiked in prominence in only the past few years, before most rules governing election spending were written. As a result, Facebook had no legal responsibility to let users know who was behind Kremlin-funded advertisements — even though similar ads run on a television station might have required a disclosure. The secrecy was even greater because of Facebook’s method of allowing advertisers to target posts to specific audiences. Other members of the public had no way of knowing what the targeted demographic saw.
Facebook’s new program will begin to lift this veil. But other Internet platforms, notably Twitter, need to lift the veil on political ads, too. And while Facebook has begun to shoulder responsibility for how its website shapes democracy, the past year has shown that major social media platforms are too powerful to be accountable only to themselves.
Facebook previously lobbied the Federal Election Commission for an exemption to rules requiring disclaimers on political ads. In the wake of Facebook’s announcement, the FEC will be taking comments on whether to revisit those disclaimer requirements and whether ads placed online for free — for example, on YouTube — should be regulated along with paid ads. Meanwhile in Congress, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) have proposed legislation to begin applying public-disclosure laws to political advertisements on the Internet as well as television and radio. The bill would also require that platforms take reasonable steps to avoid foreign-backed ads.
These proposals would not fully solve the problem of Russian meddling; Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Warner’s proposal might not have mandated disclosure of the Russian ads that sought to rile social tensions without reference to political candidates or legislation. But that doesn’t mean that the efforts aren’t worthwhile — or that they don’t deserve cooperation from platforms such as Facebook. Republicans in Congress and the FEC should work alongside Democrats in both institutions to weigh how best to protect elections from foreign interference, while also preserving the Internet as a home for vibrant political discussion. The integrity of American democracy should be a matter of bipartisan concern.
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