In a letter last week, Sens. Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar urged their colleagues to support a bill that would crack down on shadowy campaign ads running on social networks like Facebook. A draft of that bill may be circulated among lawmakers as early as Tuesday, Gizmodo has learned, but with at least one significant change.
The bill as originally proposed was intended to track “electioneering communication” purchased by anyone spending at least $10,000 on online ads. That amount is no longer viewed as an effective threshold, according to sources with knowledge of the language. The decision to scrap the $10,000 minimum came after the realization that none of the ad paid for by foreigners during the 2016 election cycle would have been covered. It’s not known what the new threshold in the bill will be.
Facebook revealed last week that at least $150,000 worth of political ads purchased had been purchased during the 2016 campaign by accounts with Russian ties; about $100,000 was spent by 470 accounts linked to a Russian company based in St. Petersberg. Around another 2,000 ads, or $50,000 worth, were purchased by Russian language accounts using US internet addresses. The House and Senate intelligence committees are preparing to review the ads over the next few weeks.
According to the Washington Post, Facebook ads paid for by Russians as part of a covert influence campaign appear aimed at sowing divisions among American voters by exploiting racial and religious issues. Some of the ads, for example, “highlighted support for Democrat Hillary Clinton among Muslim women.” Some reportedly promoted Black Lives Matter, while simultaneously others portrayed the group as “a rising political threat.”
Facebook had argued in 2011 against proposed rules requiring political advisors to disclose who paid for online ads. Citing a Federal Election Commission (FEC) rule addressing the impracticality of attaching disclosures to items such as campaign buttons and bumper stickers, Facebook contended that many of its ads were “too small” to contain both ad content and a meaningful disclosure. Increasing the size to allow for a disclosure, the company said, would be off-putting to its users and therefore disrupt its business.
In a Sept. 21 video message, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company intended to overhaul how it manages election ads, including by placing requirements on political advertisers to disclosure which audiences they target with which ads. This is of course a part of the company’s ever-changing posture with regards to its influence on the election: Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president last November, Zuckerberg scoffed at the notion that propaganda on his platform had any impact on the results—but this month he says Facebook intends to expand its election-integrity team by 250 employees.
Zuckerberg’s announcement followed a letter sent by House and Senate Democrats urging the FEC to consider new rules intended to prevent foreign influence through Facebook on US elections. But while many Democratic lawmakers support the idea of the FEC taking an active role, few believe anything will change. There are currently three Republicans and one Independent on the commission, while only a single Democrat, and the Republican-leaning commission is seen as unlikely to have substantive conversations about how Russians may have influenced the election. The effort at pushing for new rules is therefore largely seen as symbolic.
In that regard, Warner and Klobuchar’s bill—a draft of which the public has not yet seen—seems just as unlikely to achieve the bipartisan support it will require to become law. For obvious reasons, the Republicans have shown little interest in digging deep into the propaganda efforts that may have contributed to a sweeping 2016 victory. Without meaningful action on the part of the FEC or Congress, however, the responsibility of policing online “electioneering” for the foreseeable future may fall on Facebook alone. That’s a thought that should give Americans pause.
A Facebook spokesperson did not respond to a Gizmodo inquiry on Tuesday.