With the midterm elections underway, federal election regulators are still far from reaching bipartisan agreement on updating disclosure requirements for digital political ads, which are becoming more popular as social media plays a growing role in campaigns.
The Federal Election Commission released two proposals in March for how political advertisers who are running small digital ads on mobile apps and new technological platforms could run truncated disclosures without obfuscating who paid for the ad.
After two days of hearings this week and more than 165,000 public comments and signatories, there was no clear consensus on which proposal to choose or how to meld the two, commissioners said Thursday.
“We’re going to some new place if we’re going anywhere” with the proposals, said Ellen Weintraub, the FEC’s Democratic vice chairwoman. “I’m not exactly sure where that place is.”
Even if the panel can reach an agreement in the coming months, it is unlikely to release a new rule ahead of the midterm elections.
“I think it would be useful to come up with a rule that is administrable and provides clarity for the people who are trying to follow it, so that there’s not a lot of dispute about what to put on the ad,” said Caroline Hunter, the FEC’s Republican chairwoman.
“But we also want to be sensitive to the fact that we’re in the middle of the midterm election cycle,” Hunter added.
Currently, all political committees that pay to run ads on a website must report their spending in public filings and include disclaimers on the ads that state the ads’ sponsors — just as they do for television ads.
But the commission has not drawn clear lines on what is required of small political ads online.
The agency also is grappling with how to make sure that its rules are clear and consistent, while being flexible enough to accommodate future technological advancements.
While some advocates urged the FEC to act swiftly on the regulations in an effort to prevent foreign interference in the 2018 elections, the proposals being considered would apply narrowly to a small category of political ads and largely would leave untouched the types of ads that were linked to Russian operatives in the 2016 campaign.
Commissioners disagree on whether their agency has jurisdiction over the type of ads that were the most vulnerable to Russian manipulation.
Tech companies are now tasked with providing more transparency about who is seeking to shape public opinion through online ads and how to prevent foreign influence in U.S. elections.
On Thursday, Facebook and Twitter announced plans to add transparency to sources of political ads on their platforms.
Twitter users will be able to see more details about political advertisers, including billing information, the amount spent, the targeted demographic and how many people were reached, the company said Thursday.
Facebook users will be able to see the full breadth of active ads being promoted by an advertiser on Facebook, Instagram, Facebook Messenger and Facebook’s digital partners, even if the ad is not targeted to that user, the company said Thursday.
During the public hearings this week, those pushing for expanded disclosure requirements urged the agency to fast-track new rules to prevent malicious actors who may try to run political ads.
“Merely taking that step and requiring that type of disclaimer and creating disclosure across the board on the Internet will help put everyone on alert that this is a concern that the Federal Election Commission and others are trying to address,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen.
Others said expanding disclaimer requirements for small digital ads could impede on political free speech.
“If [the FEC] requires disclaimers that would objectively swallow a speaker’s underlying message, the commission will, in essence, be banning certain forms of political advertisements,” said Allen Dickerson, legal director of the Institute for Free Speech, which opposes limits on political speech and advertising.