New report outlines recommendations for transparency in who pays for political ads

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When you see or hear a political ad, you might wonder who the heck is paying for it. The innocuous sounding names of the organizations behind the ads don't really make it clear. They like it that way.

And in the wake of the 2016 election, we've learned that some online advertising was actually linked to a Russian propaganda company. If you had known that, chances are you wouldn't have taken the particular ads seriously.

A new report is out this week examining the lack of regulations around online political advertising and proposes concrete recommendations to improve transparency moving forward. The report was released by MapLight and the Voters' Right to Know project.

(Editor's note–VRKP was a participant in CA Fwd's 50 State Solution last January when citizen leaders and reform groups gathered to catalyze and accelerate change on issues like political spending transparency).

Illuminating Dark Digital Politics: Campaign Finance Disclosure for the 21st Century, written by Hamsini Sridharan of MapLight and Ann Ravel, former chair of the Federal Election Commission analyzes trends in political advertising and campaigning online; and explains why additional regulation is necessary to ensure transparency for political spending online while promoting democratic speech.

“Providing voters with meaningful, timely information about who is spending to influence elections means adapting our policies to fit the methods of the modern campaign,” said Ann Ravel, co-author of the report and steering committee member of the Voters’ Right to Know project. “Ensuring transparency and accountability in elections starts with modernizing online disclosure policy now.”

The report notes that online political advertising is increasing rapidly, though it’s virtually impossible to track exact spending figures due to the gaps in disclosure policy. According to an estimate from Borrell Associates, a company that tracks and forecasts ad spending, the 2016 elections saw digital political spending exceed $1.4 billion, an increase of more than 700 percent compared to the 2012 election cycle.

“When we held the 50 State Solution in January, participants were optimistic that change was possible and even refused to accept the status quo,” said Lenny Mendonca, co-chair of the California Forward Leadership Council. “They endorsed the premise that they were more likely to succeed if they engaged with others to share lessons learned and promising strategies, emerging analysis and political opportunities. This report shows the way in how we can shine a light in the dark places of political spending and not have to endure another year like we had in 2016 where bad actors attempted to fool voters.” 
The report offers concrete recommendations for policies moving forward and explanations of their impact, including:

Regulate online electioneering;

  • Require political committees to report sub-vendors
  • Require platforms to report ad purchases
  • Require ads to be clearly marked as ads
  • Minimize the small-items and impractical disclaimer exceptions permitted by current Federal Election Commission policy

“The lack of regulation around online political advertising essentially leaves voters in the dark,” said Hamsini Sridharan, co-author of the report and program director at MapLight. “The way political campaigns are run has undergone a seismic shift, yet our national policies around political advertising disclosure have hardly moved.”


Ed Coghlan

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