The following editorial appeared in the Washington Post.
Democratic copycats of Russian disinformation techniques, it seems, did not restrict themselves to one state this past election cycle: Late last year, the Washington Post reported on a project backed by billionaire Reid Hoffman to interfere in Alabama’s 2017 special election for Senate. Now, more information has surfaced on a secret experiment targeting conservative voters in races across the country.
We would hope political committees and campaigns on both sides of the aisle would swear off destructive tactics such as paying for professional trolls or creating inauthentic webpages. But the breadth of meddling discovered so far is one more argument for companies and Congress to put controls in place to prevent bad behavior. Those measures should start with advertising.
Facebook requires political advertisers to include disclaimers identifying themselves, which is a good thing — and more than the law mandates. But those disclaimers are not always illuminating: Authorized buyers can insert their own text into the “Paid for by” field, and that text is not accompanied by any identifying information or linked to a page where that information is available. In the latest disinformation case, ads were accurately listed as belonging to “News for Democracy,” but that name was not supplemented by a website or point of contact, and an Internet search turns up nothing immediately clarifying.
The Honest Ads Act, which House Democrats have incorporated into their legislative package, would codify Facebook’s disclaimer practices and expand on them, demanding that digital platforms offer relevant information for the public to be able to track down the real party behind an ad buy. It’s a good start, though lawmakers should craft an exemption for news sites, which have heightened constitutional protections — and on which there has been no documented problem with misleading advertisements. (The Post and other publishers are challenging the constitutionality of a Maryland law passed last year that imposes similar requirements relating to online political ads. A federal judge ruled in January that the law violates the publishers’ First Amendment rights.)
But even stricter ad rules would not entirely solve the problem. News for Democracy crafted pages called “Our Flag Our Country,” “Self-Reliant Republic,” “The Holy Tribune” and more, passing them off as conservative before slipping in Democratic messaging. These pages were listed as news companies and disclosed nothing but their names. This practice would have been misleading even if the backers of ads for those pages were identified fully.
The Democratic disinformation debacle exposes another facet of politics’ dark-money problem. Even now, it is unclear where exactly News for Democracy came from or who besides Hoffman supported it. Platforms can make dark money darker still, or they can shed a little light.