Public Citizen and Allies: ‘FEC Must Prevent Foreign Meddling in U.S. Elections’

Last week, Public Citizen, along with Free Speech For People and thousands of citizens across the nation submitted comments to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in response to the Commission’s proposed rulemaking on disclosure of online political advertising.

The proposed rulemaking, entitled “Internet Communication Disclaimers and Definition of ‘Public Communication,’” seeks to create guidelines for the disclosure of internet advertisements, a topic the FEC last visited through regulations in 2006. At that time, the Commission exempted most paid campaign advertisements on the internet and social media from the disclosure requirements, which it has most recently and wisely recognized should be corrected due to Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.

The FEC included in its proposed rulemaking two alternative proposals to address this problem, but as our comment points out, neither proposal effectively closes the “dark money” loophole nor successfully meets four key criteria.

The “dark money” loophole refers to the ability for foreign and domestic political operatives to spend anonymously on campaign ads. By funneling their money through nonprofit organizations that are not required to disclose their donors, or through entirely fictitious front groups on the Internet, these operatives can effectively fund advertisements that impact American elections from the shadows. Neither of the FEC’s proposals adequately address these loopholes.

In addition, Public Citizen finds the FEC’s two proposals falling short in that they do not contain the following components:

  • Capturing all internet campaign ads under the disclaimer requirement, regardless of size or form.
  • Mandating that even brief online campaign ads include at the very least an adapted disclaimer that specifies, “Paid for by …” in letters of sufficient size to be clearly readable by the recipient, and then providing an indicator to the full disclaimer through either an active hyperlink to another page, hover-over mechanism, pop-up screen or other technological mechanism that offers full disclosure information.
  • Putting the disclaimer rules in place for the 2018 general elections. If these rules are not cemented in time for the 2018 elections, dark money ads and Russian meddling will continue to influence the elections in November just as they influenced the 2016 election. Indeed, these ads have already begun to gain traction on social media platforms in 2018.
  • Requiring major social media platforms to provide a public library of paid internet political communications so that further Russian meddling in our elections may be curtailed.

According to Craig Holman, Public Citizen’s government affairs lobbyist, “Campaign advertising on the internet has grown eightfold between the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, and is expected to account for nearly a quarter of all campaign ads in the upcoming elections. If the FEC fails to expand its disclosure requirement for online campaign ads, voters aren’t going to know who is behind all this advertising.” In our comment, Holman requested the opportunity to testify before the FEC on June 27.

More than 100,000 citizens from all across the nation have signed on to comments calling for strong, unambiguous action by the FEC. These comments will be submitted to the FEC as part of the rulemaking process calling for the agency to strengthen internet disclaimer rules.

“Americans are angry about being confused and sometimes duped by anonymous and misleading political ads on the internet,” said Jonah Minkoff-Zern, campaign co-director of Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People campaign. “Americans across all political perspectives are calling upon the FEC to require full disclosure of funding sources behind internet campaign ads.”

While the comment period for the proposals has now ended, we encourage you to be on the lookout for the FEC’s rule and to remain vigilant in looking out for online political advertisements meant to meddle in our elections. Bipartisan legislation has also been introduced that squarely addresses this problem, known as the “Honest Ads Act,” which deserves the public’s support.

While the administration may not take seriously the threat of foreign interference in American elections, we the people should remain steadfast in our defense of the integrity of our democracy.