For weeks politicians have alluded to a bill in the works that would combat foreign election interference via political ads. Today we finally have a sense for what it is: Senator Mark Warner has announced a bill co-sponsored by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) called the Honest Ads Act. Warner and Klobuchar will present the Act at a press conference tomorrow.
It’s not quite clear what the bill will look like in its final form. According to an announcement from Warner’s office, this law would “help prevent foreign actors from influencing our elections by ensuring that political ads solid online are covered by the same rules as ads sold on TV, radio, and satellite.”
That noise you hear is the sound of companies like Facebook and Google furiously lobbying. Up until now, online ads have remained unfettered by external oversight; in 2011, Facebook told federal regulators that applying traditional campaign rules to its ads would be impractical. Given recent revelations that Russia bought political ads and spread messages through the web’s biggest platforms, officials have been insisting these companies shape up and come clean.
While Facebook, Google, and Twitter seem to be cooperating with investigators, the companies have been blasted for a lack of transparency that has left the severity of the situation unclear. Last week, for instance, Sheryl Sandberg avoided answering the question of whether there was any overlap between Russian propaganda campaigns ahead of the election and digital campaigning by President Trump.
Facebook, which said in September it found over 3,000 Russia-linked ads, has given the ads to investigators. But it hasn’t released the ads to the public, and only later acknowledged it had also found similar ads on Instagram after an inquiry by Fast Company. Facebook said that 5% of the ads it shared with Congress appeared on Instagram, but has declined to verify the specific accounts or content.
One now-deleted Instagram post Fast Company found, sent in the summer of 2017 by a now-defunct account devoted to border security, takes direct aim at Sen. McCain. In a photo, the investor George Soros is seen speaking to McCain: “Hey Johnny,” the text blares, “I’m paying you a fortune so listen to me closely! I don’t care how much cancer you have, get back to DC & backstab Trump any way you can! Globalist elites need you!”
If this bill passes, it will hopefully be a wake-up call to the likes of Facebook and Google. Given that both of their businesses are predicated on frictionless ad platforms and the demands of shareholders for greater returns, there have historically been few incentives for these companies to drastically moderate the systems that have made them billions of dollars.
Now, we wait and see if these tech juggernauts will fight back, and how they’re able to marshall the winds of public support in their favor. Or, worse, if the bill ends up being all bark and no bite.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated John McCain’s home state. We apologize for the error.CGW