Sen. Richard Blumenthal points to a poster showing a false ad posted on Twitter. C-SPAN
Sen. Richard Blumenthal at a recent hearing points to a poster showing a false ad posted on Twitter urging people to vote by tweeting. C-SPAN

Washington – When it comes to disclosures about political ads, the Internet was like the Wild West, with few regulations that required lifting the veil on those using social media to influence voters, a situation that allowed Russian operatives to meddle in U.S. elections last year.

But that may be changing.

In a turnaround, Google, Facebook and Twitter all told federal regulators this week they are open to greater regulation, a shift in position attributed to increased pressure from federal lawmakers, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Because the explosion of Internet ads had yet to materialize, the tech giants were largely ignored when Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002, the last time lawmakers sought broad changes in political advertising law.

At the time, Congress was primarily concerned with ensuring that radio and television ads were transparent.

But now the Federal Election Commission is considering new disclosure rules for online advertising.

Blumenthal said action by the FEC is needed because the tech giants can’t be trusted to voluntarily disclose who is posting and paying for ads.

“I’m optimistic they will take some action voluntarily, but not enough,” Blumenthal said. “They had to be bludgeoned and shamed to admit what they did during the election.”

After representatives of Google, Facebook and Twitter were grilled by a Senate panel last month, and the public was able to see some examples of the ads produced by Russian trolls aimed at sowing discord among the electorate, the tech giants said they are willing to consider some regulations.

In public comment to the FEC, Google went the furthest, saying the agency should create a broad rule that would ban foreign entities from buying any kind of political ads that would influence voters, both those that name a particular candidate and “issue ads” that focus on topics like immigration, gun rights or Black Lives Matter, divisive subjects promoted by Russian trolls.

“We’ll reinforce our existing protections by requiring that advertisers proactively identify who they are and where they are based before running any election-related ads,” Google said in its public comments. “Google is committed to this effort, and looks forward to working with the commission, Congress, others in the technology industry, and the NGO community to protect voters who use Google’s platforms and strengthen protections around elections.”

Twitter also said it is open to new regulations, but asked the FEC to consider that, even with its recent expansion of tweets to 280 characters, “cramming (disclosure) information in the same space could significantly alter the way users engage within the platform on mobile devices.”

Twitter also said it has created a “Transparency Center,” to allow people to investigate who is sponsoring an issue ad.

“We hope the FEC will take Twitter’s recently adopted policies into account as it formulates any new requirements for the platform and its users, while also recognizing the limited and valuable space available for political advertisements run on Twitter,” the tech company said.

Russian operatives ran issue ads on Facebook far more frequently than those promoting a certain candidate.

But Facebook stopped short of saying it would approve of an FEC requirement to disclose those responsible for issue ads. It also asked that digital companies be permitted to be creative and flexible with how they furnish sponsor information.

It also said that “any rule that the Commission adopts should be flexible enough to accommodate technologies and platforms that have not yet come to market.”

However, Facebook said it endorsed rules that require greater transparency on candidate-focused ads on the Internet that run close to Election Day.

Blumenthal joined 14 other Democratic senators  — and dozens of advocates of transparency in political advertising — in urging the FEC to write comprehensive rules that would put Internet ads on par with those on television and radio and those in print.

“This lack of transparency online – combined with the ability to granularly target users on the basis of collected user data – has incentivized the use of contradictory, materially false, and racially inflammatory ads,” Blumenthal and his colleagues wrote. “And they have provided an enticing set of tools for foreign interests intent on sowing disinformation, discord, and division among the electorate … The use of social media platforms by foreign operatives and those who seek to incite fear and hatred has led many to question the current system of political ad disclosure.”

The senator insisted  “this action is not about regulating speech.”

“The freedom of Americans to express themselves online is a right that we all hold dear, and creating parity between online political advertisements and those running on broadcast, cable, and satellite mediums will not undermine these rights,” they wrote.

Google acknowledged recently that it had found evidence that Russian operatives used the company’s platforms to launch 1,108 videos with 43 hours of content on YouTube. It also found $4,700 worth of Russian search and display ads.

Twitter said it found 2,752 accounts controlled by Russian operatives and more than 36,000 bots that tweeted 1.4 million times during the election.

Facebook said Russian operatives generated about 80,000 posts that were viewed by 126 million Americans. Mark Zuckerberg initially brushed off suggestions his company was running Russian ads.

Blumenthal said the social media companies “acknowledged just enough to avoid looking foolish,” and their disclosures are “just the tip of the iceberg.”

“Looking forward, we need to prevent this in the future,” Blumenthal said, calling the fake ads “a threat to our national security.”

Blumenthal has sponsored legislation that would require greater disclosure about Internet ads, but he said the public can’t wait for congressional approval of the bill, which isn’t likely until next year “when the Russians will be back” to try to influence 2018 elections.

“The FEC can and must take immediate action,” he said.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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