‘Honest ads’ on social media one step to an honest political system

‘Honest ads’ on social media one step to an honest political system
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In 2010, the Federal Election Commission narrowly exempted political advertising on Google from rules requiring identification of each ad’s buyer. Such disclosure appears on every political advertisement on television, radio, or in print. The tech giant reasoned that short bits of promotional text adjacent to search results were similar to other “small items” exempted from the requirement, including pens, buttons, and skywriting.

Facebook applied this logic when arguing against transparency in 2011. The FEC again deadlocked, with no specific guidance for social platforms or candidates heading into the 2012 presidential election. Twitter stood alone in requiring disclosure in paid political posts that year.

A half-decade of regulatory impotence later, obfuscation has become the FEC-blessed industry standard. It provided a convenient cloak for targeted interference by Russian meddlers and other malicious actors in 2016.

The Honest Ads Act, introduced by senators Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharDemocrats scramble to unify before election bill brawl Hillicon Valley: Big Tech critic Lina Khan named chair of the FTC | Lawmakers urge Biden to be tough on cyber during summit with Putin | TSA working on additional security regulations following Colonial Pipeline hack Big Tech critic Lina Khan named chair of the FTC MORE (D-Minn.), Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerOn The Money: Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle | White House rules out gas tax hike Democrats introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for government discrimination Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle MORE (D-Va.), and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainOvernight Energy: Lake Mead's decline points to scary water future in West | White House leads opposition to raising gas tax | Biden taps ex-New Mexico lawmaker for USDA post Lake Mead's decline points to scary water future in West Five takeaways from the Biden-Putin summit MORE (R-Ariz.), is a vital first step to bringing social advertising in line with the standards of transparency long held for other media. It merits quick action so that disclosure may be a clearly-defined norm for the 2018 midterms. However, the bill’s promise of “the same rules as TV or radio stations” sets a rather low standard.

“I’m so-and-such, and I approve this message,” is but one bread crumb in a convoluted money trail. Its twists and turns can require physically inspecting public files at every individual television station in the country. One must try to divine the scope of ad buys obscured by many layers of subcontracting in oft-delayed FEC reports. It can be impossible to sort out what or whom many political action committees truly represent. U.S. Senate candidates’ disclosure obligations remain steeped in the past, fulfilled in paper forms. This is what “the same rules” deliver.

The authors’ framing of the legislation as a national security measure to combat foreign meddling also calls into question its potential effectiveness. While the bill would curb law-abiding actors, any regulatory regime remains vulnerable to those who deliberately mask their identities. Don’t expect to see “Paid for by Vladimir Putin” volunteered anytime soon. Further, many posts attributed to recent Russian interference would not necessarily be subject to the legislation as outlined, either because of their content or relatively low dollar value.

Nonetheless, the Honest Ads Act must pass. Progress requires first steps, and brave legislators to call for them. Lawmakers must make this and other changes to align new technologies with current regulations, but then comes the more important task of catching up those tired laws with the modern state of technology.

One glance at the home screen of any smartphone gives an instant glimpse into a world of infinite connective possibility. We watch live video from every corner of the globe. We engage in immediate conversation with strangers a continent away. We search the most complete index of human knowledge ever assembled. When someone we care about buys a book, downloads a song, or endorses the latest viral video, a buzz in our pocket lets us know instantly.

However, when we want to find out who paid to influence our vote, we find ourselves navigating a web of months-old data, hard-to-search records, and layer upon layer of organizations with witty acronymic names. Visibility into the electoral process remains stuck in a pre-Y2K mindset as technology catapults the way we interact with that process into a dramatic new era.

Twitter and Facebook have in recent days taken steps toward transparency, announcing tools tools for users to trace the provenance and targeting of ads on their platforms. Google has remained more circumspect but could announce similar actions ahead of congressional hearings this week at which all three players are expected to testify.

These companies represent the greatest concentration of talent on the planet for addressing complex, connective data challenges. It’s time for that talent to work on solving these critical problems with the same creative vigor as they do surfacing the next great cat video. The industry must not retreat again to the comforts of obfuscation.

Nearly 50 years after “follow the money” entered the American political lexicon, tools can now be built to navigate that trail instantly, but only if Silicon Valley and Washington are each so motivated. Policymakers must set clear direction and set aside the self-protection and slow incrementalism that constrains legislation to the point of instant irrelevance and exploitable weaknesses.

The 2016 election revealed the crumbling foundations of today’s technology-fueled democracy. All sides must pick up a bucket and trowel and get to work on needed repairs.

Adam Sharp is an entrepreneur, consultant and speaker in Stamford, Connecticut. He was head of news, government and elections for Twitter from 2010 to 2016.