In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there was a consensus among pundits, lawmakers, and tech-scholars alike that social media platforms helped facilitate the spread of election-related disinformation. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation revealed that Russia purchased online ads on social media platforms in an effort to suppress the vote in Black communities and spread divisive and often fake news on hot button political issues. Internal investigations at Facebook, Twitter, and Google revealed that Russian groups spent over $400,000 across platforms, reaching over 126 million users on Facebook alone. So why hasn’t anything changed?
Despite bipartisan interest in regulating big tech companies and putting an end to foreign influence on US elections, no laws were passed in the last five years to regulate online political advertising. The Honest Ads Act, originally introduced in 2017 and now a part of the comprehensive For the People Act, provides the greatest opportunity for the US to minimize the influence of foreign actors on online political advertising.
With 2022 midterms looming, online political ad regulation is critical to maintaining a healthy and well-informed democracy. Here are the most important provisions of the Honest Ads Act that will shift the way that online ads are regulated on social media platforms:
1. Ban on foreign purchase of online ads
The Honest Ads Act will require online platforms to make a reasonable effort to ensure that foreign nationals do not purchase online political ads. This provision is strengthened by the DISCLOSE Act within the For the People Act, which broadens the ban on foreign national campaign spending to include online advertising. These provisions will limit the ability of foreign adversaries to conduct coordinated disinformation campaigns to influence US elections like they did in 2016.
2. Requirement for social media companies to create public database of online political ad content
The Honest Ads Act will require social media companies to keep a public database on political advertisements. Online advertisers with more than 50 million unique users will be required to publish detailed information on political ads including information on who paid for the advertisement, how much they paid, and who the advertisement was targeted to. These transparency provisions will increase the visibility of online advertisers who publish political ads, which will make users more informed on the political advertisements targeted toward them.
3. Updates political ad regulation to apply to online platforms
The Honest Ads Act applies the same transparency requirements for political television and radio ads to online advertisers. Online advertising has become the norm among political campaigns, with $2.1 billion spent on 14 million ads among 98,000 advertisers on Google and Facebook in the 2020 election cycle alone. These provisions will bring political content regulation to the 21st century by strengthening disclosure requirements among groups that spend money on online political ads.
Since 2016, there have been even more dangerous implications for how online platforms can exploit political divisions and mobilize groups with anti-democratic goals. In 2020, Russia was found to use covert tactics similar to the 2016 meddling to influence the 2020 election using Twitter and Facebook. Political spending on social media ads ahead of the 2022 and 2024 elections is at an all-time high, and is only expected to increase. Big tech companies continue to come under fire for antitrust behavior, extrajudicial oversight boards, and privacy issues that demonstrate the need to apply greater regulations to the industry as a whole.
The Honest Ads Act is overdue and needs to be implemented before the 2022 primaries and 2024 general election. With strong bipartisan support, the backing of major tech companies, and robust regulations that will make online advertising less deceptive and more transparent, Congress must pass the Honest Ads Act as part of the For the People Act and bring transparency to online political ads. We can’t afford to wait.