Following Russia’s use of social media to meddle in the 2016 elections, and facing pressure from Congress, large platforms like Facebook and Google began voluntarily instituting new transparency requirements last election cycle. These companies now maintain public repositories of political ads, along with information about whom the ads targeted and the amount spent.
Yet according to a new Campaign Legal Center (CLC) report, just 4 percent of digital spending reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by two secretly-funded Democratic groups appear in public archives maintained by Facebook, Google, Snapchat, or Twitter. Ninety-six percent of digital spending remains unaccounted for.
This report demonstrates the importance of establishing across-the-board rules for digital ad transparency, rather than relying on voluntary measures by a handful of platforms.
The secretly funded group “Big Tent Project Fund” reported to the FEC that it spent nearly $4.4 million on digital ads attacking Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary. But only about $165,000 of that digital ad spending appear in Facebook archives (no ads appear on other platforms), and only a fraction of the ads run by the dark money group appear to be publicly available, according to CLC’s report.
Another newly created Democratic dark money group called “Fellow Americans” has reported to the FEC that it has spent around $140,000 on anti-Trump ads this election cycle. Yet political ad archives maintained by Facebook and Google only show around $6,000 in ad spending from the group, CLC found.
What explains the huge disparity between the amount reported to the FEC and the amount appearing in public archives?
Vendor commissions or voter data costs might be embedded in the amounts reported to the FEC, but those costs constitute a small percentage of the overall ad spending—nowhere near 96 percent.
Instead, it appears that the vast majority of the FEC-reported spending from these secretly funded political groups went to smaller digital platforms, like streaming services, which offer substantial targeting abilities but have not voluntarily created ad repositories.
As a result, four years after the 2016 elections revealed significant digital transparency gaps, voters in 2020 will likely remain in the dark about the content of many targeted political ads circulating this election cycle.
The platform-by-platform patchwork of voluntary measures is clearly insufficient. Yet a legislative solution like the Honest Ads Act would not entirely fix these problems, either. That bipartisan bill would require larger platforms like Facebook and Google to maintain political ad archives. But when only the major platforms maintain archives, political advertisers can sidestep transparency by routing ad spending to smaller platforms that don’t make ads publicly available.
Instead, Congress should follow the lead of states like New York and place the obligation to maintain political ad archives on a government agency like the FEC. Ad purchasers could be required to provide advertising information directly to the FEC. Platforms wouldn’t be entirely off the hook and instead could be enlisted to help prevent evasion of those reporting requirements.
This approach would make it harder to sidestep transparency, easier for journalists to track spending and monitor political messages, and help watchdogs and law enforcement to detect violations of campaign finance law.
In addition, CLC found, groups like Big Tent Project continue exploiting other gaps in campaign finance law that Congress has not closed, and that have been insufficiently addressed by platforms. As the report highlights, despite Facebook’s efforts to clamp down on political ads being run under made-up names, the company allowed Big Tent Project to run anti-Sanders ads under the seemingly fake page name “United We Succeed.” Ads run under the “United We Succeed” name deployed similar messages and themes as Big Tent Project’s own ads, but the “United We Succeed” ads stopped short of expressly telling viewers to vote against Sanders, and therefore, were not subject to disclosure—as they would have been had they run on TV or radio.
We need real transparency about who is spending big money on elections to reduce the influence of wealthy special interests. These examples demonstrate the importance of updating our campaign finance laws for the 21st century and of establishing across-the-board rules for digital ad transparency.
Read CLC’s new report here.