After the 2016 election we learned that Russian operatives spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on political ads across Facebook, Twitter and Google to influence the outcome. Because online political advertising is not currently covered by political ad disclosure regulations (unlike television, print, and radio advertising), these ads went undetected for over a year. Campaign advertising requirements have not been substantively updated since the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, when Internet advertising was still in its early days. Consequently, the millions of American voters who were targeted by Russian political operatives were unaware of who was behind the political advertisements they were seeing, how they were being targeted, or the scope of Russian advertising influence on the electorate.
To address this issue, both the House and Senate have introduced the bipartisan Honest Ads Act to update standards for political advertising and reduce the potential for foreign interference in future elections. The bill would mandate that all online ads include a disclosure statement identifying the ad as a political one. The bill would also require that platforms running online political ads build and maintain public databases of these ads. The databases would include images of ads as well as information about the buyer, linked organizations, cost, and targeting. Furthermore, online platforms would be required to make “all reasonable efforts” to ensure political ads are not being purchased by foreign citizens or governments, just as radio and television broadcasters must already do. The new rules would apply to online platforms with more than 50 million active users, organizations buying political ads with a total value of over $500, and ads for both specific candidates and for legislative issues of national importance.
The Honest Ads Act is not a sufficient standalone response to Russia’s election interference in 2016, but it is a reasonable and necessary first step in safeguarding our democracy, informing our electorate, and ensuring campaign disclosure rules reflect the rapidly changing landscape of advertising and online media.