America is under attack. Hostile foreign governments are spending millions of dollars to spread propaganda, hack our elections and manipulate our politics.
This fact is getting lost among the snarky tweets and political posturing following Twitter’s decision to stop running all political ads and Facebook’s inadequate policies guiding its paid political advertising.
The truth is that foreign actors continue to use social media platforms to interfere in our politics. Russia, Iran, and others are spreading propaganda online, sowing division between Americans, and paralyzing Washington. And our leaders are doing nothing.
Censorship is not the answer: Facebook, Google and Twitter — or any online platform running paid political advertising — should not be deciding what candidates can or cannot say. Under federal law, broadcast television and radio play by these rules, and the online platforms should, too. TV and radio can use their news divisions to fact check candidate ads that are misleading, and the online companies could easily run the ads in a box with a disclaimer that they have not been verified to be accurate.
The biggest problem with the social platforms is that they’re each playing by their own rules, and none of the rules ensure transparency, from top to bottom, in their paid advertising. Facebook, Google and Twitter define the rules about who can buy ads, how ad sponsors are verified, and how ads are categorized as “political.” There are no uniform standards governing paid advertising that applies from one platform to the next. That is unfair to groups who want to express their speech through paid advertising and candidates running for office. These platforms can and often do change these rules at any time. And these are business decisions, meant to enhance their bottom line. But the real bottom line should be better elections for the American people, not more money for the tech companies.
The problems and solutions being thrown around vary: Stop running political ads, stop microtargeting, be more transparent about why ads are targeting specific individuals. The list goes on. What is clear is the past few years have demonstrated that self-regulation by these companies doesn’t work. Their policies have been taken advantage of by foreign actors and others. Issue One spent months digging into these platforms and their advertising databases, revealing significant flaws and failures. For example, tens of thousands of ads ran without disclaimers about who paid for them on Facebook. Companies selling political merchandise highlighting American political figures like Bernie Sanders and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg were connected to individuals in Vietnam. Some ads disappear entirely from the political databases these companies created. Non-political advertisers, like Windex, that show up as political advertisers because Facebook, Google and Twitter have different criteria for what counts as a “political” ad.
The way these platforms deal with our nation’s political discourse is a mess and there’s no incentive for them to get it right. The United States is less than a year from Election Day, and Americans have no choice but to take the social media companies at their word that foreign actors aren’t using these companies’ platforms to interfere in our elections. But the voluntary transparency measures they have put in place as a public relations play just don’t cut it.
Congress needs to act. The Honest Ads Act should serve as a template for Congress to develop a reasonable and fair legal framework that all online platforms of significant size (that want to run paid political advertisements) must follow. Voluntary self-regulation isn’t working. We need the force of law to ensure U.S. elections are secure.
Meredith McGehee is executive director of Issue One.
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