Figuring out how system is manipulated and blocking ads during elections present challenges
A series of Russian-linked ads that flooded Facebook during the U.S. 2016 election has sparked concerns of foreign interference in the democratic process, prompting calls for increased regulation of political advertising on social media platforms.
Yet some are worried such measures don`t sufficiently address the problem or could go too far and serve to violate freedom of speech rights.
Lawyers for Facebook, Twitter and Google appeared this week before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, answering questions about Russian-linked accounts that began purchasing advertising on their services. For example, Facebook said one Russian group posted more than 80,000 times on its service during the election, reaching as many as 126 million users.
From left: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. This week, lawyers for the tech giants were answering a U.S. Senate subcommittee's questions about Russian-linked accounts that began purchasing advertising on their sites. (Getty Images)
Dave Karpf, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, said the ads that appeared on social media sites were just the "tip of the iceberg" and it's clear there needs to be more regulations, whether they come from Congress or the industry itself.
"If the social media companies don't respond vigorously and rigorously I think we should expect in 2018 and 2020, expect more of this behaviour, and that's going to make it that much harder for us to have a national election electoral system."
He suggested new regulations could mirror those already in place for TV political advertisements.
"Or at least figure out what modifications to that model are appropriate for social media as opposed to what the [Federal Election Commission] has so far, which is just punt on this and ignore it entirely," he said.
(The Federal Election Commission, or FEC, is the independent regulatory agency that administers and enforces the U.S. federal campaign finance law.)
Barry Sookman, a Toronto-based lawyer and expert on internet law, said these platforms need to be treated the same as other platforms in the media, when it comes to election ads.
"I think the gravity of the situation has been recognized, I think quite poignantly in this election, where not only there are allegations of collusion but there was what appears to be a clear concerted attempt by the Russians to influence the election.
With examples of Russian-created Facebook pages behind him, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, questions witnesses during a hearing titles 'Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online' held by the U.S. Senate judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism on Capitol Hill Tuesday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
But whether the ads that appeared on Facebook contravened any laws seems to be an open question. A foreign individual, entity or government cannot spend money for ads on TV, radio or online that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate for office. (For example, an ad that said vote for Donald Trump)
They also can't spend money on tv and radio ads close to the election that are considered "electioneering communication" — for example, an ad that said Hillary Clinton was a great secretary of state and a great leader but didn't explicitly state to vote for her.
Richard Hasen, a political science and law professor at the University of California at Irvine, said it's less clear if a foreigner could run electioneering communication on a digital platform. Some of the ads that ran this election on social media sites mentioned the candidates but were not expressly election ads, he said And many of them appeared to be neither election ads nor ads mentioning candidates but instead were aimed at hot button issues like immigration, gay marriage and Black Lives Matter.
"It appears, from what little we know, most of these ads would not be illegal under current U.S. law."
To correct this, a bill named the "Honest Ads Act" has been drafted by two Democratic senators and has received support from Republican Sen. John McCain.
Senate judiciary committee member Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat from Maine, covers his face in frustration as he questions witnesses from Google, Facebook and Twitter on Oct. 31 on election campaign-related ads. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
The bill would seek to regulate political advertising by expanding the "electioneering communication" to social media ads and require online platforms to make "all reasonable efforts" to ensure that foreign individuals and entities are not purchasing political advertisements in order to influence the American electorate.
As well, it would require digital platforms with at least 50,000,000 monthly viewers to maintain a public file of all electioneering communications purchased by a person or group.
Last week, Facebook said it will verify political ad buyers in federal elections and build transparency tools to link ads to the Facebook pages of their sponsors. Twitter has also said it will require election-related ads for candidates to disclose who is paying for them and how they are targeted.
Google announced on Monday that it will also verify the identity of election-related ad buyers and identify these advertisers publicly via an ad icon. But when lawyers for the companies were asked during the Senate committees whether they would support the Honest Ads Act, they offered only qualified support.
Karpf said it's not going to be enough for companies like Facebook to just agree to create some transparency standards.
"They're going to need to proactively put a lot of talent into figuring out how this system is being used to manipulate the election going forward next time because you're gonna have more people trying more dirty things."
However he did acknowledge the challenges social media companies will face trying to clamp down on thousands of foreign political advertisements.
"That's not going to be a cakewalk," Karpf said. "There's going to be some hard problems. It needs an engineering talent."
Meanwhile, some are already criticizing the proposed legislation. Leonid Bershidsky, founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomost, wrote in Bloomberg News that a troll "cleverly disguised as Jane Doe or John Smith, and ostensibly based in Random Location on Google Maps, U.S.A ., will still be able to buy and run any kind of political ad — all from the outskirts of St. Petersburg.
The Institute for Free Speech said the bill fails "to meaningfully address foreign interference, while placing considerable limits and burdens on the online political speech of Americans."
"Legislation that attempts to limit foreign interference in our democracy by broadly regulating the free speech rights of Americans would, in fact, undermine our democracy and directly advance Vladimir Putin's agenda," wrote Eric Wang of the institute.