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After Russian-linked ads, put social media under the microscope


What happens to American democracy when we don’t know who is behind political advertisements and messages? When not only the speakers, but even advertisements and political messages themselves, are hidden from most voters and the press?

Reformers have long argued that this kind of secrecy is a threat to democracy, giving wealthy special interests an ability to gain corrupt favor with politicians. The 2016 election revealed another peril. Foreign interference in American elections through secret, targeted and misleading messages and campaign advertisements in social media threatens the long-standing principle of popular sovereignty through democratic self-determination — the idea that the American people are the rulers of our own political order.

{mosads}The problem may seem insurmountable. But the truth is that many of the same technologies that have made it easier for foreign governments to covertly interfere in American elections can be used to create more transparency and accountability in American elections.

Let’s start by naming the problem, or at least one aspect of it. We recently learned that Facebook shared the contents of ads linked to Russian agents that ran during the presidential election with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

This follows Facebook’s public revelation this month that it discovered as much as $150,000 worth of ads touching on politics that were purchased in 2015 and 2016 by fake accounts, many associated with a notorious Russian troll farm where agents of Moscow disseminate propaganda through fake social media profiles. Facebook maintains it can’t publicly share the ads due to its privacy policy.

The revelations about Russian ads on Facebook have called attention to “dark posts,” ads that are seen only by a finely targeted demographic. These allow politicians, special interests and foreign powers to say different things to different audiences, including potentially using inflammatory or discriminatory rhetoric with groups expected to be receptive. Journalists never get the chance to fact check or inform the public more widely. Voters can’t hold leaders accountable or weigh the credibility of the information based on its original source.

Our response to this new problem, partly made easier by the growth of social media, must be multi-faceted.

First, we must change American law to keep up with changes in technology. American law has long thrown up obstacles to meddling from abroad, from the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause to the ban on election spending by foreign nationals first enacted in 1966. But this is no longer sufficient.

Political activity online should be subject to similar transparency rules as those for TV and radio, meaning that spending on sham issue ads that mention a candidate in the weeks immediately before an election must be disclosed. And we should improve campaign finance disclosure rules to eliminate “dark money” spending by groups that hide their donors.

Policymakers should consider recent proposals that would require platforms to keep a repository of political ads that’s accessible by the public. And laws should be strengthened to clarify that foreign nationals are banned from placing the kind of sham issue ads that the 2002 McCain-Feingold law regulates, no matter what medium they appear in.

Second, we need to expand our capacity for digital forensics to identify and publicize major propaganda operations in as close as possible to real-time. This would allow certain messages to be flagged as originating from foreign sources, and profiles speaking for other governments could be “named and shamed.” The federal government should task a specific agency with digital forensics, and data should be shared with relevant agencies across federal, state, and local governments, as well as civil society and the press. Efforts along these lines have already begun.

Data from digital forensics can also be used by the social media platforms in their efforts to eliminate fake profiles, like the user pretending to be a dad from Pennsylvania that was eliminated as part of Facebook’s crackdown on Russian activity. In addition, lawmakers should consider requiring automated accounts, or “bots,” to identify themselves as non-human.

Finally, whether the threat is from foreign propaganda, domestic fake news, or urban legends, Americans’ media literacy needs improvement. The skills to tell trustworthy sources from suspicious ones should be taught at all educational levels, as some school systems have already started doing.

The media industry can help in this effort by coming together to create a reliability indicator for new sources. A system with widespread participation, where reliability scores are based on transparent and easily understood factors, would likely quickly become an indispensable tool. An authoritative rating could blunt the power of both fake news and the knee-jerk use of the label “fake news” to dismiss unwelcome facts.

These proposals are just a start, but will bring greater openness to American elections and help protect our democracy from foreign meddling. Psychological research shows that warning audiences at or before the time they first hear propaganda is one of the most effective responses to that propaganda.

Over the longer term, government and experts from across society must work together to continue building up our defenses to foreign influence online — an ever-changing threat will require that we keep innovating.

Ian Vandewalker serves as senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, where he works on voting rights and campaign finance reform.

Lawrence Norden is the deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.


Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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