So how did the Russians spoil the last election? Some of the original suspicions of Vladimir Putin hacking into the electoral system and changing the vote totals don’t seem to have panned out. But they were definitely… “involved.” How so? Some combination of fake news, fake social media users and very real advertisements. This, I’ve been assured, is something we all need to be worried about and take whatever measures are practical to stop. Fair enough. But we’ll need to figure out exactly who we’re dealing with and what their crimes were.
Amy Klobuchar published an op-ed at the Washington Post this week where she claims to have some answers. She begins with the story of Melvin Redick, a politically engaged patriot and dad from Pennsylvania who was active on Facebook during the last election. Except that Melvin turned out to be a Russian bot. A fake account. For what it’s worth he might have fooled me too.
From there, Klobuchar moves on to a related topic with a bit more meat on the bone. It’s the question of foreign actors using foreign currency to purchase political advertisements (as opposed to personal updates and opinion pieces) on social media platforms.
It is illegal for foreign entities to buy political ads in the United States. But that didn’t stop the purchase of thousands of political ads on Facebook, paid for — in rubles — by foreigners.
The reason is simple and scary: Our campaign finance laws have left open an enormous loophole for foreign actors to secretly violate our campaign finance laws and possibly influence our elections. It’s time we update the laws so that online platforms are held to the same transparency standards as other companies that sell political advertisements.
More than a decade ago, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act to regulate political advertisements. It’s the law that requires politicians to say, “I approve this message.” It also requires groups that run ads supporting or opposing a specific issue to disclose who paid for them, and it requires broadcasters to keep a file — available to the public — of the political advertisements they sell.
She’s certainly correct about the purchasing of traditional advertisements in American outlets. While we don’t do that for most any other form of advertising, that’s the law of the land. So if we wanted to either ban foreign purchase of political advertising or at least make Facebook and the other platforms keep a list of who bought them, that could be worth discussing. But before we begin there are a couple of broader questions to answer.
Traditionally, when someone wishes to purchase a political advertisement they have to either go to a print publication (newspaper or magazine) or a broadcast network, cable news channel or what have you. The ones we’re talking about all operate inside the United States and are subject to any number of rules so that’s fine. And while they may have websites available anywhere, they have certain broadcast or delivery areas which are definitely regional. But what about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the rest? True, their headquarters may (or the case of other companies, may not be) in the U.S. But their audience is global. I realize they have some complicated algorithms running their marketing technology and they can definitely tailor the audience to the advertiser’s needs to a certain extent, but how do they stop ads from appearing elsewhere?
And what of those fake users like Melvin? What if he wasn’t a bot? What if Melvin was an actual guy in Russia… or in France or England or Canada for that matter? Can he comment on the election in a way where American users an see his posts? Or would that be “foreign influence” in our election also? If so, that would be odd because we have all manner of people in Europe and Asia going on the air or printing articles commenting on our elections all the time. Are they “meddling” in the election? You can see how this begins to get complicated.
All of this reminded me of an article I was reading earlier this week at Next Gov. It focuses on the premise that social media has become so globally ubiquitous and powerful that it’s now the first tool of choice for 21st century warfare, at least according to Sen. Mark Warner.
“We may have in America the best 20th-century military that money can buy, but we’re increasingly in a world where cyber vulnerability, misinformation and disinformation may be the tools of conflict,” Warner said at The Atlantic’s Washington Ideas fest produced by Atlantic Media Company, which is Nextgov’s parent company. “What we may have seen are the first tools of 21st-century disinformation.”
That’s some scary stuff he’s pumping out, but yet again, we need to keep an eye on the details. Warner goes on to note that, “Russia used paid advertising and fake accounts on social media to disseminate misinformation to voters.”
I’m not entirely sure we can conflate those two things. Or can we? Only Facebook can determine the difference between advertising and a user account. If we pass a law saying they have to keep track of who buys political ads (assuming that’s even possible for Facebook) then they can make that information available. Great. But what about user accounts? If I use my Facebook page next summer to publish posts claiming that Amy Klobuchar is a socialist, am I breaking a law? What if I lived in Canada and did the same thing? Can foreigners have opinions on American politics and publish them on their social media pages?
I’m not here to offer an answer to this mess. I’m just saying that we’ll require a bit of consideration as to precisely how much of an internet swamp we’re diving into when we try to regulate this. And before Congress puts pen to paper on any such notions, they are the ones who should be able to answer all of these puzzles.