Can New Legislation Fix Digital Advertising?

In the wake of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Senators Mark Warner of Virginia, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and John McCain of Arizona have introduced the Honest Ads Act, which would require social media companies and online advertising platforms to make their political advertising public — and share details about how those messages were targeted and how much was spent on those ads.

While this bill faces a number of hurdles to becoming a law, Facebook and Twitter are also trying to get out in front of any new federal regulation with their own announced reforms.

Here’s an attempt to explain what it all means.

What does this legislation actually do?

The Honest Ads Act would require any platform with more than 50 million monthly viewers to maintain a public database of all electioneering communications purchased by a person or group spending more than $500 in total.

The lawmakers say, “The file would contain a digital copy of the advertisement, a description of the audience the advertisement targets, the number of views generated, the dates and times of publication, the rates charged, and the contact information of the purchaser.”

It would also require platforms to make “all reasonable efforts” to prevent foreign actors from purchasing political advertisements.

All of which is well-intentioned and ultimately helpful. And yet, it falls pretty damn short of solving the problems unearthed by 2016.

The authors of the Honest Ads Act, Senators Warner, McCain, and Klobuchar. 

Okay — then what does the Honest Ads Act NOT address?

This proposal is focused on ads that mention a candidate or “a national legislative issue of public importance.” It would do nothing about advertising that falls outside those parameters.

The legislation is targeted at established social networks with massive audiences — niche platforms that don’t meet the monthly user minimum would be exempt.

And it’s focused on advertisers looking to spend at least $500. So there’s nothing in this proposal that would account for a coordinated effort from 100 entities that are all different on paper, each looking to spend $499. In other words, the Russian troll farm industry would have a ready answer to this particular bit of regulation.

It’s also worth mentioning that none of this stops bots and fake accounts from proliferating.

Without some kind of identity verification process required at sign-up, nameless Pepe the Frog avatars will be free to keep on amplifying propaganda. And even companies that embrace verified identity find it difficult to manage in practice. On Facebook, for instance, you can verify identity with a loyalty card to your local pharmacy or a magazine subscription.

If that’s the legislative situation, what are the tech companies trying to do on their own?

Twitter is rolling out new transparency measures, including the ability for users to see who is targeting them, why they’re being targeted, and other Twitter ad campaign information. Separately, they’ve banned Russia Today and Sputnik from advertising — though Russian media companies will, of course, find plenty of other takers for their money.

Facebook is going further.

They’ve announced plans to hire 1,000 humans to review ad creative before it goes live. And as of Friday, they’re also rolling out new rules that eliminate dark posts entirely and allow any organization to check out their competitors’ and creative, with additional data available for advertisers engaging in what they deem “federal-election related” activity. Which actually is a pretty big step forward.

Those reforms will help campaign research teams better reconstruct the operational strategies of their rivals. They will give journalists some opportunity to describe in their coverage what the various parties trying to influence voters are trying to do.

And by the way, that’s true of all industries going forward: Republicans and Democrats, Coke and Pepsi, Ford and GM.

What about stopping fake news?

Okay, that’s the second problem.

In the Honest Ads Act, there’s a fairly broad news exemption. And aside from Twitter blocking Russia Today, there’s very little appetite among the social networks to turn away a news organization, no matter how ideological.

So if some billionaire wanting to influence American elections decides to start a media company instead of a Super PAC, he’d be free to do so. In fact, he can even pay to boost his “news story” at will.

Which also means that Macedonian fake news factories will have plenty of operating room in campaigns to come.

Then what would a better fix look like?

It’s hard to say.

In French elections, there’s a hard cap on what campaigns are allowed to spend, rules mandating that all qualified candidates receive equal coverage, and a mandatory dead period for political messaging in the day immediately before voters head to the polls to give people time to reflect.

Russia still tried to disrupt this year’s race.

Throughout the course of the campaign, there were rumors and doctored documents suggesting that Emmanuel Macron maintained a shell company in the Caribbean. Facebook reportedly had to delete some 30,000 fake accounts. Just before the messaging dead period, WikiLeaks published 70,000 messages from Macron and his political operation.

This time, though, the dirty tricks fell short. Macron won anyway.

Did the structural differences between our two election systems have an impact? Perhaps. But all the additional electoral regulations of the French system didn’t stop Russia from making the attempt. This is the new reality that we should expect going forward.

Still, we should recognize that efforts to increase transparency, such as those put forward in the Honest Ads Act, are worthwhile. The reforms proposed by Facebook and Twitter are also worth trying.

There’s room to go further still. Organizations advertising on social media, for instance, should be forced to meet a higher standard for identity verification than an individual. As they have with national elections in France and Germany, the tech companies should do more to police fake accounts and propaganda. They should also devise features to amplify legitimate sources of news.

And individual voters have a responsibility, too.

Despite the bad information the internet serves up every day, it’s never been easier to find high-quality reporting, fact-based history, and thought-provoking analysis that remains rooted in reality. We just have to make the effort.

In other words, we’ll get out of our democracy what we put into it.