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Press Release

Social Media is Now Prime Conduit for Foreign Interference

Brennan Center shows how foreign governments circumvent ban on foreign spending in U.S. elections.

April 9, 2018

New York, N.Y. – As Face­book chief Mark Zuck­er­berg heads to Capitol Hill this week to answer for his company’s mani­fold secur­ity fail­ures, the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU Law released a new report today mapping out how Face­book, Twit­ter, Google, and other inter­net plat­forms now repres­ent a major vulner­ab­il­ity for the coun­try’s long­stand­ing ban against foreign spend­ing in domestic elec­tions.

The report, Getting Foreign Funds Out of Amer­ica’s Elec­tions, offers the first compre­hens­ive set of solu­tions to prevent foreign actors from unduly influ­en­cing Amer­ican elec­tions through polit­ical spend­ing. Without reform, foreign actors can easily purchase advert­ising on these plat­forms and else­where to skirt the disclos­ure laws that have protec­ted our elec­tions for decades.

 “Campaign finance rules have decayed beyond recog­ni­tion; plat­forms like Face­book – despite lip service to reform – have become the wild west for polit­ical advert­ising; and spend­ing from hidden sources is cours­ing through our demo­cracy at aston­ish­ing speed,” said Ian Vandewalker, lead author of the report and senior coun­sel at the Bren­nan Center for Justice. “The Russian govern­ment walked right through gaping holes in the regu­la­tions in the 2016 elec­tions. Congress and the states must act now to update campaign laws and secure our demo­cracy from foreign meddling.”

With a preface by national secur­ity expert Richard Clarke, the report details the chain of fail­ures that allowed foreign entit­ies to purchase online advert­ising to sway the 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. The Bren­nan Center’s research shows how promoted posts reached tens of millions of Amer­ic­ans across social networks, and how those efforts were enabled by the fail­ure to update regu­la­tions on polit­ical advert­ising since 2002.
“The $1.4 billion spent online in the 2016 elec­tion was almost eight times higher than in 2012,” said the Bren­nan Center’s Vandewalker. “Digital is where polit­ical spend­ing is head­ing. Unless and until we require adequate disclos­ure and block foreign purchasers from buying ads, any bad actor – not just Russia – will have the power to covertly sow chaos in our polit­ics. That’s unac­cept­able.”
The Bren­nan Center’s analysis lays out common­sense propos­als for Congress, states, and the tech compan­ies them­selves to regu­late digital polit­ical advert­ising, bring­ing rules that already apply to TV and radio to the web. The recom­mend­a­tions include:

  • Requir­ing disclos­ure of who paid for online ads that mention candid­ates shortly before an elec­tion.
  • Requir­ing plat­forms to main­tain a public data­base of ads that discuss elec­tions or legis­lat­ive issues, includ­ing the ad itself and the demo­graphic target­ing used.
  • Requir­ing online plat­forms and broad­casters to try to prevent foreign interests from placing polit­ical ads.

The report also exposes other loop­holes that can mask foreign spend­ing and proposes reforms to address them. Among them: dark money organ­iz­a­tions that aren’t required to report their donors; U.S.-based corpor­a­tions controlled by foreign entit­ies; and a moribund Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion that does not vigor­ously enforce campaign regu­la­tions.
Read the full report, Getting Foreign Funds out of Amer­ica’s Elec­tions.
Read more about the Bren­nan Center’s work on Money in Polit­ics.

To set up an inter­view with any of our experts, please contact Beat­riz Alde­reguia at (646)292–8369 or alde­reguiab@bren­