At a Glance
CLC sued the Federal Election Commission for its failure to enforce transparency laws, as billions of dollars are being spent in secret on Facebook election ads. Voters have a right to know who is spending money to influence their vote so they can be informed when weighing their credibility.Back to top
About this Case
On Feb. 28, 2020, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) sued the Federal Election Commission (FEC) for its failure to enforce important federal transparency laws designed to protect voters’ right to know who is trying to influence their vote so they can weigh the credibility of the source and cast an informed vote.
In October 2018, an unknown person created a Facebook page for a shady group called America Progress Now. The Facebook group ran a series of Facebook ads expressly advocating for Green Party candidates in five competitive U.S. Senate and House races. These ads reached hundreds of thousands of Facebook users. The group then went silent. The mysterious group should have reported their Facebook ad spending on the 2018 elections to the FEC, but failed to do so.
In September 2019, CLC filed a complaint with the FEC alleging violations of federal campaign finance law. The FEC has failed to act.
America Progress Now illustrates the larger challenges given the limitations of Facebook’s self-regulatory measures and the FEC’s failure to enforce campaign finance laws. The FEC needs to do its job to protect the voices of all Americans, not just special interests.
What’s at stake:
Transparency in the sources of funding for spending in elections has long been considered central to the free and transparent functioning of our democracy.
The risk of large-scale noncompliance with federal disclaimer and disclosure laws, and thus interference by unknown actors in federal elections, will only continue to grow as digital ad spending increases. With this increasing risk, it is all the more important for there to be clear application and enforcement of disclosure and disclaimer requirements to digital advertising. Application of these requirements holds political advertisers and politicians accountable and ensures that the public remains informed about whose views they are seeing in their newsfeeds.
The FEC is the only government agency whose sole responsibility is overseeing the integrity of our political campaigns. The agency’s failure to enforce transparency laws has resulted in an explosion in secret spending. Special interests often run ads that are deliberately misleading with no identifying information about who is behind the ad. We do not know whether America Progress Now was the work of a third-party supporter, or of a major-party political operative promoting spoiler candidates, or of a foreign government seeking to exploit U.S. political divisions. Voters have a right to know who is funding these ads so they can weigh their credibility and cast an informed vote.
The 2020 election promises to be the most expensive election in U.S. history, with digital political spending expected to reach a projected $2.8 billion. It is important that the FEC send a clear signal that groups seeking to influence elections online are subject to the transparency requirements in digital advertising that protect voters’ right to know who is trying to influence their vote.
If nothing is done, the FEC will instead be sending a message that anonymous or fake entities like America Progress Now can pop into existence just prior to an election, exploit lax registration and reporting requirements by digital platforms, spend unlimited sums of money, and then disappear into thin air once an election is over.
In order to have transparency and accountability in our elections, the problem identified by CLC with fake Facebook advertisers must be addressed urgently so that watchdogs can shine a light on which interests are supporting or opposing candidates in the 2020 election.