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Political Advertising Should Come With Disclosure

November 15, 2017

Online advertising is as distinct as broadcast or print advertising. Just as media companies sometimes have stumbled in recognizing the differences and making the transition from conventional to digital delivery, Congress and regulators have failed to grasp the need for standards covering online political advertising. The need is urgent. Candidates, parties, and any number of other entities spent more than $1.4 billion on online advertising during the 2016 election cycle, and that number is certain to grow cycle after cycle. As revealed during congressional hearings, a single Russian “troll factory” spent a minimum of $2.3 million on social media ads and propaganda last year attempting to influence the presidential election. Unlike political ads on TV and radio or in print, those online are not required to carry the “paid for” disclosure. The result is that viewers who encounter the ads have no way to know their origin, much less the ability to vet the entity claiming responsibility for the ad. The federal government has the opportunity to create those standards on two different tracks. The Federal Election Commission is considering whether to update its rules by requiring the same “paid for” disclosure for all political advertising, regardless of the delivery platform. And Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mark Warner of Virginia, with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have introduced the Honest Ads Act requiring disclosure for online political ads as a matter of law. Especially given the Russian interference, but simply to safeguard the integrity of the electoral process, the FEC and Congress should move as quickly as possible to require comprehensive source disclosure for all political ads.