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The Honest Ads Act Explained

The proposed law would close a major loophole that allowed Russia to pay for online political ads that attempted to influence the 2016 U.S. elections.

Published: January 17, 2020
Honest Ads
BCJ/Getty/Klaus Vedfelt/Chesnot

Leading up to the 2016 election, agents of the Russian government reached tens of millions of Americans on social media. This online activity, fueled in part by ad spending, went undetected during the election season and exposed loopholes in U.S. campaign finance law. These vulnerabilities compromise the integrity of U.S. elections and make it difficult — or even impossible — for the general public to know the source of messages trying to influence their vote. 

What is the Honest Ads Act?

The Honest Ads Act is a bill that would modernize campaign finance laws to account for online political advertising. Specifically, the proposed legislation addresses a loophole in existing campaign finance laws, which regulate TV and radio ads but not internet ads. This loophole has allowed foreign entities to purchase online ads that mention political candidates. The Honest Ads Act would help close that loophole by subjecting internet ads to the same rules as TV and radio ads. It would also increase overall transparency by allowing the public to see who bought an online political ad, no matter who it was.

Why are online political advertisements susceptible to foreign interference?

For years, the law has required transparency for political ads on television and radio, but lawmakers have never updated those rules to apply to the internet. Anyone who pays for a political ad on TV must include in the ad a disclaimer identifying themselves. And the broadcaster must keep public records of political ad purchases. Additionally, leading up to elections, foreign nationals are banned from paying for ads that mention political candidates. The transparency rules help enforce this ban. These rules were outlined in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002, also known as McCain-Feingold, which laid out the requirements for “electioneering communications” in broadcast, cable, and satellite communications.

But McCain-Feingold does not impose the same rules on internet advertisements, which had a much smaller footprint when the law was passed. And since then, Congress has failed to make meaningful changes to federal campaign finance law — which is problematic given the major evolution of the legal and technological landscape that has since occurred. This inertia has been exacerbated by the perpetual dysfunction of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the agency responsible for enforcing campaign finance law.

As a result, the laws that regulate political advertisements have kept open a loophole that allows for the undetected purchase of online political advertisements.

How did Russia use social media ads to interfere in the 2016 election?

Facebook posts by agents of the Kremlin disguised to come across as Americans, promoted by paid advertising and shared by unsuspecting Americans, reached a total of 126 million Facebook users leading up to the 2016 election. The operatives also posted more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and more than 1,000 videos on YouTube. Across those three platforms, Russian groups spent at least $400,000 on political advertising.

One focal point of Russia’s online influence campaign was the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a shadowy Russian company linked to the Kremlin. In a sweeping criminal indictment, Special Counsel Robert Mueller noted that the IRA “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” To accomplish that goal, the IRA purchased ads that appeared to promote both sides of divisive social issues in the United States, including police brutality, race, and terrorism.

When the effort was revealed after the 2016 election, it exposed the weaknesses in transparency rules for U.S. elections.  

IRA ads in 2016 also appeared to target Black Americans with the intent of discouraging them from voting. This perpetuated a long-running trend in which the Russian government has exploited U.S. racial divisions in attempts to influence election outcomes. The Kremlin’s targeting of Black voters in 2016 also demonstrates the broader emergence of online voter suppression, a pattern that continued in the 2018 midterm elections.   

Russia is expected to continue its attempts to influence political outcomes in the United States, according to a 2018 U.S. intelligence analysis. But the threat of foreign interference extends beyond Russia. The Brennan Center’s Ian Vandewalker and Lawrence Norden have warned, “We must also be ready for potential copycat interference from other states like China, Iran, or North Korea, or even non-state terrorist groups like ISIS.”

How can the Honest Ads Act make U.S. elections more transparent and protect them from foreign interference?

The Honest Ads Act would subject internet advertisements to transparency requirements as well as ban foreign nationals from buying online political advertisements. This would close major loopholes in campaign finance law by applying existing rules for television and radio companies to internet advertisements.

One key provision of the Honest Ads Act involves expanding disclosure rules to include any online ads that mention a candidate, not just the ones that explicitly endorse or oppose one. This would block advertisers from skirting the rules, as they often do currently, by creating “sham issue ads” that attack or praise a candidate without explicitly telling viewers to vote for or against them. And it would provide clearer language that bans foreign spending on all such communications. 

The Honest Ads Act would also require online ad vendors, including social media platforms like Facebook, to maintain public databases of all online political advertisements, regardless of whether they mention specific candidates. Such a requirement would increase transparency by providing both journalists and the general public visibility into critical information about online ads, such as its target audience, timing, and payment information. Similar rules are already in effect for both television and radio companies, which maintain public records of political ad purchases.

Another reform outlined in the Honest Ads Act involves strengthening the FEC’s disclaimer requirements for online ads, which would provide more transparency for internet users about the source of the content they are viewing. The proposed legislation would also require technology companies to “make reasonable efforts” to prevent foreign nationals from buying political ads on their platforms.

What’s next for the Honest Ads Act and other reforms?   

The Honest Ads Act was most recently introduced in the Senate in May 2019 with bipartisan co-sponsorship, led by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Mark Warner (D-VA). The bill has also earned the support of major internet companies, including Facebook and Twitter. A companion bill has also been introduced in the House of Representatives, sponsored by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA-6) and 35 co-sponsors.

The Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election involved paid advertisements, which the Honest Ads Act will address, but it also involved other tools and methods, including fake social media accounts that spread false information, as well as automated bots. While the passage and implementation of the Honest Ads Act would mark an important step toward securing U.S. elections, responding to the full range of internet-related foreign interference threats will require additional reforms.