The rules now in place just don’t match up with how certain groups influence voters via the internet. Thanks to savvy lobbying by tech companies, online election campaign speech remains almost entirely unregulated.
The platforms won exemptions from many campaign finance provisions by arguing that the rules would stifle their growth. They don’t have the legal requirements for ad disclaimers and disclosures — like keeping public logs of political sponsors — that television does.
That’s how the Internet Research Agency, a home for troll accounts in St. Petersburg, Russia, could spend money on Facebook pages that worked for Hillary Clinton’s defeat without having to reveal its identity.
The platforms are taking steps to change. They say they are screening and authenticating political advertisers, whose activity they are disclosing voluntarily through public databases. They have also added human moderators and artificial intelligence programs to remove fake accounts, an initiative that has lessened social media pollution.
But they started policing themselves only after months of denial and public pressure. And their efforts only go so far: Every week seems to bring reports of improper activity slipping through the cracks….
The House recently passed a bill requiring platforms to keep public logs of political advertisers and tightening restrictions on activity originating outside the United States. A similar bill is pending in the Senate, but it has little chance of becoming law ahead of 2020, given the opposition of the Senate leader, Mitch McConnell.
The recent legislative action may be a start, but it’s steeped in assumptions of how media works left over from the days when TV and radio were the dominant forms. Social media posts that cost nothing don’t count as paid political ads, although they may have been created by well-funded organizations or profitable businesses whose goal is to sway voters.
The Internet Research Agency, for instance, pumped out free content from accounts that appeared to belong everyday Americans. Real citizens shared — and amplified — this stuff, sometimes by the hundreds of thousands.