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With Record Number of Comments, Organizations and Lawmakers Call for FEC Action on Secret Funding of Online Campaign Ads

Nov. 9, 2017

With Record Number of Comments, Organizations and Lawmakers Call for FEC Action on Secret Funding of Online Campaign Ads

Disclaimer Rule Could Help Curtail Foreign Meddling in U.S. Elections

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Federal Election Commission (FEC) should advance a rule requiring online political advertisements to display their sources of funding, a measure that could help curtail foreign meddling in U.S. elections, grassroots and good government groups said alongside lawmakers today at an event at the Capitol.

The groups – including Public Citizen, Common Cause, People For the American Way, Center for American Progress, End Citizens United, Stand Up America, CREDO Action, League of Women Voters, Issue One, Sunlight Foundation, MoveOn, Rootstrikers and the Center for Digital Democracy among others – have gathered more than 150,000 signatures (an all-time record), to urge the FEC to address the issue of secretive sponsorship of online political ads, which are largely exempt from campaign finance disclosure requirements.

The FEC should move forward with a rulemaking process requiring online ads to publicly reveal the sources of their funding within the ads themselves, said representatives of the groups, along with U.S. Sens Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and John Sarbanes (D-Md.). Representatives of the groups today delivered the signatures and comments in support of the rule to the FEC.

Klobuchar also is a lead sponsor of the bipartisan Honest Ads Act, which would require that sources of funding behind paid political ads on online platforms be disclosed to the public.

Below are comments from participants in today’s events.

“It is past time for the FEC to update disclosure rules and bring transparency and accountability to ads purchased online. Thanks to the over 150,000 Americans who submitted comments and made their voices heard to let the FEC know – election security is national security and we want to know who is trying to influence our votes online,” said Sen. Klobuchar.

“It is now clear that Russians trying to influence our election used Facebook to set up political stunts in our country – but we didn’t learn about it for months. A year has passed since the election, and we are still trying to get to the bottom of how the Russians manipulated social media to hack into our democracy. It is critical that we continue to bring attention to this important issue and I urge the FEC to lead the fight to protect against these real threats to our democracy,” said Sen. Coons.

“Americans of all political stripes rightly believe that we need to do more to safeguard our democracy from foreign meddling,” said Rep. Sarbanes, who also chairs the U.S. House of Representatives Democracy Reform Task Force. “With the 2018 midterm elections just around the corner, Congress, the FEC and the executive branch must come together and advance bipartisan reforms to prevent foreign agents from undermining our electoral process.”

“The American people deserve to know who is trying to influence our elections. Our bipartisan bill, the Honest Ads Act, makes sure our laws are up to date with the latest technology, and makes it harder for foreign actors to use the internet to attack our democracy,” said Rep. Kilmer.

“Protecting American elections from interference is an essential priority, and to do so we need transparency. Without sunlight on election spending on internet platforms, we run the risk of further emboldening foreign powers to muck up our democratic process. We urge the FEC to act on this unprecedented outpouring of public support, and to reflect the obvious need to act to protect our system,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen.

“Transparency is a basic value in our democracy,” said Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy and external affairs at Common Cause. “Everyone deserves to know who is trying to influence their votes and their views – including online with paid political advertisements. This is the third time in six years that the Federal Election Commission has solicited public feedback on whether to revise its rules for online political ads. Now, more than 150,000 Americans have taken the time to respond by urging the FEC to modernize its rules. We hope it will act swiftly.”

“To fully participate in our democracy, we must be bold in protecting it. Our ability to choose our government and hold it accountable is compromised if our democratic process is not free and fair. That’s why transparency is essential to shield our democracy from unlawful influence,” said Elizabeth Beavers, foreign policy manager at the Indivisible Project.

“Our elections are the bedrock of our democracy and the fact that Russian agents were able to spread propaganda online is nothing short of a direct attack on our country,” said Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United. “Americans overwhelmingly agree we need increased transparency for digital political spending. We cannot afford to have our enforcement agencies unable to act and beholden to outdated regulations that allow for foreign agents to operate in the shadows of the internet. The sheer outpouring of comments presented to the FEC today is further proof that the time to act is now.”

“There is no longer any doubt that Russia used social media platforms to interfere with the 2016 election and that the platforms failed to take adequate steps to safeguard our democracy,” CREDO Director of Organizing Kaili Lambe said. “It is long past time for the Federal Election Commission to enter the 21st century and require disclaimers on online ads, just like the ones already required for TV and print ads. Whether it’s foreign influence or corporate interests, we have a right to know who is paying for ads to sway voters.”

“Secret money and foreign influence have no place in America’s elections. Voters have a right to know who is paying for online political ads. We must work to ensure that America’s elections are American made and that voters know the source of political messages. The FEC should take swift action to put forward updated regulations that require online campaign ads to meet the same standards as television and print ads, including disclaimers letting people know who is funding them,” said Jeanette Senecal, senior director of elections at the League of Women Voters.

“Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, including the use of paid political advertising on platforms like Facebook, has demonstrated the critical need for new safeguards surrounding online political spending. It’s the responsibility of the FEC to take action on establishing these new guidelines, to ensure that future elections are not compromised in the same way. What’s at stake is nothing short of the integrity of our democracy,” said Diallo Brooks, senior director of outreach and public engagement at People For the American Way.

“It’s been a year since Russia’s attack on our democracy, and Congress has done nothing to protect our elections,” said Sean Eldridge, founder and president of Stand Up America, a progressive community. “So the FEC can – and must – act to provide American voters with the transparency we deserve by requiring online ad disclosure, just as they do for television and radio ads.”

“The FEC must hold hearings to examine how, in this era of Big Data and personalized digital marketing, the unrestricted use of consumer information for political targeting may threaten our democratic process,” said Katharina Kopp, policy director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “Political campaigns now have access to an array of details on individuals that weren’t previously available, including what they do online and offline. As we witnessed last year, this new capability can be used to engage in online suppression tactics to dissuade individuals and groups from voting. We urge the FEC to examine how digital data-driven campaigns may disenfranchise communities of color and economically at risk individuals.”

“Americans have a right to know the true source of the funds used to influence our elections, whether those ads are broadcast on TV or displayed online,” said Liz Kennedy, director of democracy and government reform at the Center for American Progress. “The FEC must begin a rulemaking to provide clear guidance on disclaimer requirements for online political ads. The lack of clear guidance has allowed well-funded interests, including foreign states, to anonymously influence U.S. elections. It is abundantly clear that FEC action on this is overdue, and the Center for American Progress has submitted a comment urging the Commission to move forward with a rulemaking without delay. CAP also strongly supports the commonsense, bipartisan Honest Ads Act, which would apply some of the same basic disclosure requirements to online ads as the FEC does to television ads – and importantly, it would require social media companies to take reasonable steps to prevent foreign influence in our elections. At a time when foreign adversaries are exploiting our divisions to subvert America’s democracy, it is urgent that we take real, immediate steps to root out foreign influence and shine a light on all political spending so voters are well-informed to run our democracy.”

“The commissioners at the FEC would have to bury their heads in the sand to ignore the fact that Americans’ lives – and our elections – are increasingly carried out online,” said Kurt Walters, campaign director at Rootstrikers. “FEC inaction opened a massive loophole for foreign actors and shadowy billionaires alike to secretly influence American voters with online ads. The FEC should heed the public’s outcry to protect our democracy and update its antiquated disclosure rules.”