Following the recent news coverage exposing the danger of unaccountable money in our elections, citizens and watchdog groups are searching for answers. Last week, a report was released by MapLight, which identifies gaps in current disclosure regulations. Maplight is a nonpartisan organization that advocates for transparent campaign finance laws, and they released the report in partnership with the Voters Right to Know project. The report examines our system’s lack of regulation for online political ads and makes recommendations to lawmakers. “The lack of regulation around online political advertising essentially leaves voters in the dark,” said Hamsini Sridharan, co-author of the report and Program Director at MapLight. “The way political campaigns are run has undergone a seismic shift, yet our national policies around political advertising disclosure have hardly moved.” Ann Ravel, co-author of the report and former Chair of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) agreed, saying, “Ensuring transparency and accountability in elections starts with modernizing online disclosure policy now.”
Addressing the transparency of digital ads becomes increasingly important as the money spent on digital advertisements continues to skyrocket. According to an estimate from Borrell Associates, a company that tracks and forecasts ad spending, the 2016 elections saw an increase of 700 percent spent on digital ads from 2012. Illuminating Dark Digital Politics: Campaign Finance Disclosure for the 21st Century, by Hamsini Sridharan of MapLight and Ann Ravel, outlines a list of recommendations for closing the online loophole while continuing to enhance democratic speech and enable innovation. The report acknowledges that while online political expenditures are difficult to track with the rapid proliferation of digital technology platforms in the political space, extending disclosure requirements to major advertising platforms like Google and Facebook through legislation designed to enhance accountability has the potential to take meaningful steps to improve transparency in elections. Voters deserve to know who is trying to influence their vote.
The authors suggest that the same disclosure requirements applied to broadcast and print media should be applied to online ads. This makes sense, given the trends in media consumption. 88 percent of American adults reported using the internet in 2016, up from 52 percent in 2000, according to a Pew Research Center study. That same study shows that 18 percent of all Americans cited the Internet as their leading source of political news back in 2006. Today, Facebook has 210 million users, which is ten times as large as the subscriber base of the largest cable or satellite provider. This means that candidates, parties and outside spending groups have caught up with those trends and are increasingly using those platforms to influence voters. However, the regulatory framework has not caught up. This is largely because the agency in charge of enforcement, the FEC, has been deadlocked for years on any regulations about modern internet advertising.
Additionally, the report recommends that advertisements should be clearly marked with disclaimers including the name of the group paying for the ads, that online platforms be required to disclose records of political ad purchases, and that political actors report all expenditures above a certain threshold.