Ellen L. Weintraub is a member of the Federal Election Commission.
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.
Whether Russian bots are engaging in express advocacy (think “Vote for Hillary”), issue advertising (think “Build the wall”) or even disseminating news stories (think “Pizzagate”), if the effort involves any money spent by a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election, it’s in the FEC’s jurisdiction, and it’s illegal.
One way to keep bad actors from trying to break the law is by putting robust disclosure requirements in place. Strong new disclosure rules would give us a mechanism to track who really paid for an ad. Permitting ads without disclaimers is an invitation for wrongdoers to act unseen – an invitation they seem to have accepted in 2016.
That’s why at the FEC’s public meeting Thursday, I sought to revive a long-stalled rulemaking process that would overhaul federal rules regulations regarding the disclaimers required in Internet political advertising.
It has been more than a decade since the commission has fully examined how best to regulate political spending on the Internet — an eternity in online years.
Fortunately, requiring disclosure of Internet political spending is not “rocket surgery.” Disclosure rests on firm legal footing, and the FEC is pretty good at making it happen when we have the political will to do so. States such as Maryland and California have also given us models we can work with.
At our meeting, the commission unanimously decided to re-open the written comment period on what sorts of disclaimers Internet advertising ought to have. That’s the good news. The bad news is: The FEC’s Republican commissioners will agree to hold a hearing only if we receive enough substantive written comments.
Make no mistake: Foreign interference may well have favored Republicans in the 2016 election, but it could just as easily go another way the next time around. We have every reason to think that the driving force here is not any lasting party preference but a pure desire to disrupt our democracy.
The Senate and the public should make sure that incoming FEC commissioners — especially now and regardless of party — recognize the long- and short-term dangers that foreign interference represents to our democracy, and that they are willing to do something about it.
Our campaigns are moving headlong onto the Internet; our laws must catch up. Americans have the right to know who’s paying for the ever-more-influential political material that’s popping up in our social media feeds. The FEC has the ability — and the duty — to make sure it’s not Vladimir Putin.
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