The United States faces a national security crisis as every facet of our political system is under siege from China, Iran, Russia, and other foreign adversaries. While it is already illegal for foreign entities to spend money to influence an American election, directly or indirectly, the unfortunate truth is that our 20th century laws are outdated and overmatched by the 21st century realities of digital political campaigns.
Advertising disclosure rules mainly focus on television and radio advertisements, and even the barest disclosure requirements that online ads are supposed to be subject to — disclaimers on the ad itself stating the name of who paid for the communication — are very narrow and have not been enforced by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Now that paid, online political advertising is a major component of campaigning, there are major gaps in the disclosure system that can be exploited by malicious foreign actors.
Introduced in several sessions of Congress with bipartisan, bicameral support, the Honest Ads Act is the best first step to stopping hidden, foreign disinformation campaigns in our elections. The bill would implement a commonsense disclosure system for paid, online political advertising, closely modeled on longstanding Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules for paid political advertising on television and radio. The act addresses deficiencies in political disclosure rules that allow foreign actors to influence American politics anonymously through paid online advertising.
The bill would:
- Require a public political file for the largest online platforms: Such social media companies, ad networks, or search engine like Facebook, Google or Twitter — would be required to obtain and publicly disclose information from the purchasers of paid, online political advertising, including the name of the person or group who bought that advertisement, the rate charged, a description of the targeted audience and the date and time the advertisement was first displayed.
- Ensure everyone can see the ads: The platforms would be required to make a copy of the advertisement publicly available. Ads placed by foreign entities seeking to interfere with American elections would no longer be hidden from the public.
- Establish reasonable thresholds. The political file rules would apply to any candidate, political party, individual or group that spends $500 or more to purchase political ads on an online platform if that platform has at least 50 million unique monthly visitors in the United States. Like the FCC rule it is modeled after, the political file system would apply to ads relating to candidates as well as ads dealing with national legislative issues of public importance.
- Standardize disclaimer rules. The legislation would clarify that paid, online political advertising relating to federal elections is subject to the same disclaimer requirements as political ads in other formats.
The Honest Ads Act has been included in the Freedom to Vote Act.
Learn more about our work to combat foreign interference in our elections.