It’s common knowledge that the Russians were meddling in the 2016 American election because social media companies such as Facebook confirmed they sold ads to Russian outlets.
In fact, Facebook even responded to questions from Congress about whether its corporate records could prove collusion between President Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
But now there’s a new warning about election meddling. Facebook and others could be a purveyor of political messages and not know who’s behind them, which would be in violation of federal rules.
The issue is being raised by ProPublica, which noted the Federal Election Commission months ago said political ads on social media must contain a disclaimer, a reference to the organization behind the ad. But hundreds of ads ProPublica recently reviewed on Facebook didn’t have the disclaimer.
The sources of the ads included the Democratic National Committee and the Donald Trump 2020 campaign.
The non-profit group Take Back Our Republic, which promotes participation in the American political system to preserve and strengthen liberty, pointed out an ad attacking President Trump that did not disclose it was paid for by the Democratic National Committee.
The ad featured an image of the president with “Stop the lies” emblazoned across it.
The report cited a determination by the FEC, based on concerns from TBOR’s affiliate, Take Back Action Fund, that disclaimer information must be included in political ads on Facebook.
“So we checked more than 300 ads that had run on the world’s largest social network since the opinion, and that election-law experts told us met the criteria for a disclaimer. Fewer than 40 had disclosures that appeared to satisfy FEC rules,” ProPublica said.
“There’s no excuse,” David Keating of the Institute for Free Speech in Alexandria, Virginia, told the organization.
The organizations behind the ads, which are responsible for including the disclaimers, could face fines of thousands of dollars.
The FEC declined comment to ProPublica. And the individuals or groups ProPublica contacted whose ads appeared to have inadequate disclaimers, including the Democratic National Committee and the Trump campaign, also did not respond.
In public documents, Facebook has urged the FEC to be “flexible” in what it allows online. The company wants the government to develop a policy for all digital advertising rather than focusing on Facebook.
ProPublica said “the pervasiveness of the lapses ProPublica found suggests a larger problem that may raise concerns about the upcoming midterm elections – that political advertising on the world’s largest social media network isn’t playing by rules intended to protect the public.”
That could be bad news atop bad news for those sites, “since internet companies acknowledged that organizations associated with the Russian government bought ads to influence U.S. voters during the 2016 election,” the report said.
The report said the FEC is working on rules to require more transparency on social media. Three members of the U.S. Senate have proposed the Honest Ads Act to require Internet companies to deliver more information about who is paying for the political ads, which appear and then vanish.
The organization said it tracked ads using the Political Ad Collector tool, which lets Facebook users send in political ads on their news feeds, so the results of its assessment “aren’t a representative sample.”
The report notes that the disclaimer requirement, even if fully enforced, would not provide full transparency.
“Many of the political ads purchased by Russian groups in 2016 attempted to influence public opinion without mentioning candidates at all – and would not require disclosure even today,” the report said.
Back in 2011, “Facebook asked the FEC to allow political ads on the social network to run without disclosures,” the report said. “At the time, Facebook limited all ads on its platform to small, ‘thumbnail’ photos and brief text of only 100 or 160 characters. … In that case, the six-person FEC couldn’t muster the four votes needed to issue an opinion, with three commissioners saying only limited disclosure was required and three saying the ads needed no disclosure at all.”
The Take Back organization had challenged the freedom to post political ads without disclaimers, telling the FEC it intended to buy advocacy ads, and the FEC stated that disclaimers were needed.
ProPublica detailed: “To test whether political advertisers were following the FEC guidelines, we searched for large U.S. political ads that our tool gathered between Dec. 20 — five days after the opinion — and Feb. 1. We excluded the small ads that run on the right column of Facebook’s website. To find ads that were most likely to fall under the purview of the FEC regulations, we searched for terms like ‘committee,’ ‘donate’ and ‘chip in.’ We also searched for ads that used express advocacy language such as, ‘for Congress,’ ‘vote against,’ ‘elect’ or ‘defeat.’ We left out ads with state and local terms such as ‘governor’ or ‘mayor,’ as well as ads from groups such as the White House Historical Association or National Audubon Society that were obviously not election-oriented. Then we examined the ads, including the text and photos or graphics.
“Of nearly 70 entities that ran ads with a large photo or graphic in addition to text, only two used all of the required disclaimer language. About 20 correctly indicated in some fashion the name of the committee associated with the ad but omitted other language, such as whether the ad was endorsed by a candidate. The rest had more significant shortcomings. Many of those that didn’t include disclosures were for relatively inexperienced candidates for Congress, but plenty of seasoned lawmakers and major groups failed to use the proper language as well.
“For example, one ad said, ‘It’s time for Donald Trump, his family, his campaign, and all of his cronies to come clean about their collusion with Russia.’ A photo of Donald Trump appeared over a black and red map of Russia, overlaid by the text, ‘Stop the Lies.’ The ad urged people to ‘Demand Answers Today’ and ‘Sign Up.’
“At the top, the ad identified the Democratic Party as the sponsor, and linked to the party’s Facebook page. But, under FEC rules, it should have named the funder, the Democratic National Committee, and given the committee’s address or website. It should also have said whether the ad was endorsed by any candidate. It didn’t,” the report said.