Two senators want to take the conversation about election interference back to where it all began: advertisements. Russia’s Internet Research Agency bought more than 3,500 of them on Facebook ahead of the 2016 election, the platform says – and, according to researchers, most were legal. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Mark Warner, D-Va., are aiming to change that.
Klobuchar and Warner introduced the Paid Ad Act last week to stymie adversaries who pour money into swaying the U.S. electorate. Foreign nationals would be prohibited from buying ads in any medium naming a candidate for office at any time, and foreign governments and lobbyists would be prohibited from buying what are known as “issue ads” during an election year.
Today, most of the requirements and restrictions governing political advertising focus on “electioneering,” or advocacy for or against a specific candidate. But the majority of Russian ads in 2016 latched on to controversial topics instead, from gun control to climate change to the Black Lives Matter movement. Those are issue ads, and they’re at the crux of the fight against election interference.
The gentler way to address these ads is to ensure that Americans know who paid to persuade them. This is the primary purpose of the Honest Ads Act, also spearheaded by Klobuchar. It would amp up disclosure requirements for domestic and foreign actors alike. But truly robust disclosure will require broader campaign finance reform preventing ads’ funders from hiding behind the names of shady organizations. Without that, a Russian propaganda effort could masquerade in a disclaimer as “All-American Patriots.” There’s also the risk that even adding Vladimir Putin’s name in all caps to an ad would mean little to an everyday voter captivated by inflammatory content.
Still, barring issue ads altogether treads tricky free expression territory, not least because of the difficulty of defining what qualifies as a topic of sufficient political importance. True, foreign governments and lobbyists do not have First Amendment rights, but these rules would not only affect scheming Russians. Our North American neighbors, for example, might want to educate the American electorate about the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade. And the U.S. has its own interests in funding the promotion of democracy abroad. What message would it send to other countries to bar them from advancing their views here as we advance ours there? Klobuchar and Warner’s bill forces Congress to ask whether disclosure is enough – and if it is not, whether the threat of further foreign interference is enough to accept tamping down on countries’ ability to communicate their message beyond their borders. That is a crucial conversation for lawmakers to have. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has refused to bring to the floor another valuable bill from Warner requiring presidential campaigns to report foreign interference, must let them have it.
The Washington Post