Closing the Digital Loopholes That Pave the Way For Foreign Interference In U.S. Elections

New research study supports the Honest Ads Act

  • William Gray

Note: This post was corrected to reflect an update in the number of suspicious groups in the underlying study.*

Today, Issue One and the Campaign Legal Center, in conjunction with University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Young Mie Kim and her team, Project DATA (Digital Ad Tracking & Analysis), published the results of the first peer-reviewed survey of Facebook political ads in the 2016 elections. The study by Professor Kim and her team provides compelling support for the Honest Ads Act, bipartisan legislation that has been endorsed by tech companies including Facebook and Twitter that would help root out foreign interference in U.S. elections and make digital advertisers more accountable.

Professor Kim and her team captured and analyzed 5 million paid ads on Facebook in the weeks ahead of the 2016 elections, and their peer-reviewed study is forthcoming in the journal Political Communication. The research is the first, large-scale, systematic empirical analysis that investigates Facebook political advertising.

Of the 228 groups that purchased political ads about hot-button political issues in the weeks before the 2016 elections, 121 were identified by Professor Kim and her team as “suspicious” — which means that there was no publicly available information about nearly half of the sponsors of Facebook ads featuring hot-button political issues in the weeks before the 2016 elections. In this research, suspicious groups are unidentifiable, untrackable groups that have no public footprints. Professor Kim and her team identified a group as suspicious if no information about the group was found elsewhere, even after reviewing the Federal Election Commission, IRS-based databases, and other research databases.

A quarter of the ads the research examined mentioned candidates, and would be subject to disclosure requirements if aired on TV, but escaped those transparency measures because they were run online.

This secrecy would not be possible on broadcast. While social media companies have proposed new transparency measures, the Honest Ads Act would solidify disclosure requirements by moving the law into the 21st century. This bipartisan legislation aims to ensure that digital political ads are subject to the same transparency requirements that apply to similar ads run on any other medium. The Honest Ads Act would remedy some of the disturbing digital advertising practices outlined in the Project DATA study by creating a public footprint.

“We have seen clear evidence that when left unchecked, foreign actors seeking to affect U.S. politics will use — and abuse — any tool at their disposal. It is time for digital platforms to be held to the same common-sense, simple rules that govern disclosure of television and radio ads,” said Issue One Executive Director Meredith McGehee. “The 21st century realities of online political advertising have overwhelmed our country’s capacity to hold rule-breakers accountable. The Honest Ads Act would begin to fix this problem.”

One-sixth of the “suspicious” advertisers turned out to be Kremlin-linked Russian groups, according to Project DATA’s analysis of information released by the House Intelligence Committee. Additionally, the peer-reviewed study found that voters in swing states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were disproportionately targeted with ads featuring divisive issues like guns, immigration, and race relations. These included ads that raised anger or fear, or emphasized the divides between subgroups of the population. Some of these ads were sponsored by nonprofits that did not file a disclosure report to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) about the source of their funding.

“As this peer-reviewed study demonstrates, secretive groups were able to run tens of thousands of digital political ads without detection because of massive loopholes in our campaign finance laws,” said Brendan Fischer, director, federal reform program at CLC. “This study demonstrates the importance of Congress addressing campaign finance law’s internet blind spot. The protection of American elections from foreign interference cannot be left to voluntary measures by tech companies.”

The Honest Ads Act was endorsed last week by Facebook and Twitter, but has yet to receive a hearing.

Read the results of the new research study here.

* The underlying study initially identified 122 “suspicious” groups. One group was erroneously placed in this category. The correct number is 121.