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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.

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