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It is time for Congress to regulate political advertising on social media


Facebook recently announced that it was imposing a moratorium on new political ads in the week leading up to Election Day on concerns about its inability to counter misinformation. This move was reminiscent of a Twitter action last year that banned all political advertising for similar reasons.

Political advertising on social media, which spreads misinformation and disinformation, increasingly threatens democracy and electoral integrity in the US and other countries.

In 2016, Russian activists ran 3,000 ads targeting up to 10 million American social media users in an attempt to distort political opinion and influence the outcome of our elections. Recent US intelligence analysis revealed that Russia, China and Iran are trying to sow discord and influence the outcome of the 2020 elections. But the problem is not just with foreign interference. Google – owned by YouTube – allows multiple ads to be displayed by domestic political actors with false or misleading information about mail-in votes in key swing states.

Political advertising bans do not solve the real problem. An initiative from the Carter Center to identify and contain online threats to democracy and elections worldwide (an initiative funded in part by Facebook) leads us to believe that the solution will require a range of actions from technology platforms, citizens, independent watchdogs and governments .

While it’s fair to criticize platforms for not assuming gatekeeping responsibilities, it’s time Congress took steps to regulate political advertising on social media.

In a March 2019 Washington Post comment, Facebook CEO said Mark ZuckerbergMark ZuckerbergSenators condemn Instagram boss about the platform’s impact on children Rohingya refugees are suing Facebook over 0B Hillicon Valley – Amazon pulls COVID check on MORE recognized the need for a “more active role for governments and regulators”. Zuckerberg argued that “the legislation should be updated to reflect the reality of the threats and set standards for the entire industry”.

Immediate reforms should do three things: oblige platforms to curb manipulative interference by foreign actors, deliberately prohibit false information aimed at stifling voter turnout, and limit the use of microtargeting filters that spread false or misleading political claims to facilitate a single audience.

First, Congress should pass the Honest Ads Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in 2019 that would modernize the existing rules enshrined in the Federal Campaign Act of 1971 and the bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. The Honest Ads Act would make advertising on social media subject to the same transparency requirements for disclaimers and sponsorship disclosures that traditional advertising would make public databases of all political ads with information about their target audiences and costs.

The passage of this law would create a much needed bulwark against foreign actors who meddle in our elections through targeted political advertising. The federal transparency requirements would also help reduce anonymous political advertising and prevent the spread of false or misleading information.

Congress should also pass the Voter Intimidation and Fraud Prevention Act, originally introduced in 2007 and revised and reintroduced last year. This would make the spread of false information about when and how to vote unlawful and help curb the spread of disinformation aimed at stifling voter turnout.

The biggest challenge, however, is dealing with false and misleading claims made by politicians in advertisements. Political advertising is not tied to the “truth in advertising” requirements that apply to commercial advertising. It is largely shielded from regulation under the constitutional right to freedom of expression. Dozens of states have tried – unsuccessfully – to provoke false claims made in political advertisements, but courts have overturned such provisions. Any similar attempt at federal legislation would meet with fierce opposition and legal challenges.

In recent years, both Republicans and Democrats, including both major party presidential candidates, have proposed repealing Section 230 of the Communications and Decency Act, which exempt ISPs from liability for most of the content users post on their platforms. While this would force online platforms to act, it would also cause them to practice excessive censorship for fear of legal action.

A more humble approach would be to enact laws that restrict the use of microtargeting filters for political advertising. The tools made available by online platforms themselves should be limited to age, gender and location. Personal data collected from individual users through platform engagement should not be allowed for political advertising purposes. While this would not completely solve the problem, it would reduce the ability of political actors to target false and misleading advertising to a single audience.

Neither of these solutions is a panacea, but each would address part of the problem that platforms either cannot – or cannot – solve on their own.

Michael Baldassaro is senior advisor to the Carter Center’s Digital Threats Initiative and David Carroll is the director of the center’s Democracy Program.


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