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Explainer

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.