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States Shine Light on Russian Trolls’ Hiding Places

Greater transparency rules for online ads are critical to preventing covert foreign influence efforts from tainting the 2020 elections. States must continue to lead the way.

May 1, 2019

Co-authored by Emily Glavin 

The redacted Mueller report provided concrete details of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and yet Congress has not passed any new legislation to stop future foreign interference, while former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen was reportedly discouraged from even raising the issue with President Donald Trump.

But while the federal government may have stalled, state lawmakers have taken the lead on preventing foreign interference in the 2020 elections and beyond. California, Maryland, New York, and Washington have all recently passed laws that strengthen transparency requirements for online political ads, leaving Russian trolls fewer places to hide. And a bill in Connecticut, could become one of the strongest state policies yet, requiring platforms to publicly disclose information about political ad buys — including a copy of the ad, the identity of the ad buyer, and how the ad was targeted. Sponsored by State Rep. Michael Winkler, the bill would also restrict the ability of foreign-owned and -influenced corporations to spend on elections in the state. The Connecticut bill recently passed out of committee in a 12–3 vote, and Connecticut’s Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated that the bill could generate a revenue gain for the state. State House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz should bring it to the floor.

The need for these new laws is clear, as the evidence continues to grow that foreign powers are attacking U.S. elections. The long-awaited Mueller report detailed a coordinated Russian effort, which included the activities of the Internet Research Association, the Russian troll farm with a multi-million-dollar budget that created thousands of fake social media accounts to push divisive messages. These efforts continued through the 2018 midterms, and there have already been similar attacks in the 2020 presidential election. And although the IRA is the best known example, it is by no means the only foreign entity threatening U.S. elections, as similar activity by other Russian entities and from Iran and Venezuela has also been documented.

The Brennan Center has proposed a set of reforms to get foreign funds out of U.S. elections. The Center also filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit over a Maryland law explaining why legislatures need the tool of enhanced transparency from online ad sellers to reduce the opportunities for covert foreign operatives to hide their identities. Strong disclosure rules advance constitutional values such as an informed electorate, as courts have consistently ruled in the past. A clear statement now from the courts that these new online disclosure regimes are constitutionally sound will allow the policy to continue to spread throughout the states.

A patchwork of state laws is no substitute for comprehensive federal reform, but state regulation is still an important step in the right direction. Historically, state-level policy experiments have often informed future federal lawmaking. And state laws can incentivize major technology companies, which do business nationwide, to apply the same level of transparency across the country.

Greater transparency rules for online ads are critical to preventing covert foreign influence efforts from tainting the 2020 elections. States must continue to lead the way. 

(Image: Win McNamee/Getty)