Donald Trump

Politicians—Unsurprisingly—Want to Regulate Political Ads on Facebook

Russian panic is the excuse to try to control online speech.


Sen. John McCain
MEGA / Newscom

The obsession with the idea that the Russians are responsible for President Donald Trump's election is now being used to push for more regulation of social media.

Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) are being joined by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to make their effort to regulate online political advertising a bipartisan affair.

Today they plan to introduce what they're calling the Honest Ads Act, which aims to introduce ad disclosure regulations similar to those for television. The text of the bill is not yet available, but here's a summary of the contents via Quartz:

  • Make public digital copies of any advertisement these groups purchase, including the dates and times published.
  • Include a description of the audience and political ad target, and the number of times it was viewed.
  • Disclose contact information for the ads' purchaser, and how much they paid for the ad.
  • Make "reasonable efforts" to ensure that any political ads or messaging isn't purchased by a foreign national, directly or indirectly.

The justification for the bill is the discovery that a Russian company linked to the Kremlin spent $100,000 on Facebook ads, which is chump change when compared to domestic campaign advertising spending.

But let's be clear here: Russian meddling is just being used as an excuse to do what politicians and federal agencies have wanted for a long time—to regulate how people campaign online. As The New York Times notes, the Federal Election Commission has been attempting to regulate online political advertising for years, and tech companies have been resisting.

As is often the case when lawmakers attempt to regulate campaign advertising, there's very little thought about how these lawmakers are not exactly disinterested parties. I mean, it's not terribly surprising that McCain, in a permanent feud with Trump, might want to find ways to work with the Democrats to control online political ads.

Restrictions on campaign advertising pretty much always benefit incumbents and powerful parties, because they already have a significant amount of money, influence, and media access. Challengers have an uphill climb, and anything that controls campaign expenditures and advertising methods makes that climb steeper.

And in the end, all that Russian advertising "meddling" was about taking advantage of Americans' dissatisfaction with choices made by established political interests.

It's telling how much of the coverage of Russian interference is unwilling to look at the reasons it may have worked, and instead revolves around how to stop it. When the discussion does explore the meaning of the meddling, the coverage almost always announces that Russia is "taking advantage" of cultural divisions. At The Washington Post, Casey Michel breathlessly declares that a Russian-run group on Facebook encouraged Texas to secede from the union, and that Facebook allowing that to happen represents "one of the greatest frauds in recent American history." But the Texas secession movement is absolutely not new, and that fact that this particular effort wasn't a real thing means nothing in terms about how many Texans feel about their relationship to the federal government.

Remember, the official report from our national intelligence agencies on Russia's involvement on the presidential election, a summary of which was released back in January, focused heavily on how the country, via RT, was giving voice to Americans who were dissatisfied with the government. One of its examples was that RT brought in third-party political candidates and pointed out that many Americans were unhappy with the two parties.

As I noted then:

I don't dispute the findings here about RT, but look at those examples and they could apply not just to Reason but to media outlets of varying ideological positions within America. Americans are abandoning the two political parties. People are genuinely upset about surveillance and police brutality. If this is an attempt to sway the public to be concerned about RT, it's not terribly persuasive.

The problem isn't that the Russians attempted to influence the election. The problem was that many Americans found this "fraud" to be compelling. Michel suggests that Americans who fall for these frauds are "gullible." But that, again, is a way of just dismissing the political fractures themselves.

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  1. Huh, another problem that looks exactly like a nail. We’re lucky the government has the right tool for the job.

      1. As if there were something wrong with controlling online speech! Surely no one here would not dare to defend the “First Amendment dissent” of a single, isolated judge in our nation’s leading criminal “satire” case? Rather than defend meddling of any sort, Mr. Shackford should be working hard to convince Internet companies to ban inappropriate “editorials” such as this one:…..s-scholar/

  2. Surgeon: “Senator, I’m afraid that you have lost a good deal of the functioning in your brain.”

    McCain: “So what, all I need to do is to wag my finger and support ‘bipartisan’ legislation, and I’ve been doing that for years without using my brain.”

  3. Libtards (and McCainites) who think Trump should be in charge of censoring political ads are off their meds.

  4. “Is voting for silly law? Ha ha, we will outwit your law and sneak insidious Russian propaganda into America through clever ruses, like to be making trolling on capitalist comment boards, ha ha ha!”

    1. Or just publish the democratic party platform?

    2. “Is voting for silly law? Ha ha, we will outwit your law and sneak insidious Russian propaganda into America through clever ruses, like to be making trolling on capitalist comment boards, ha ha ha!”

      We already know about Tony.

  5. Odds favor Trump winning the feud by default…

  6. The people are corrupt/lazy/stupid and easily manipulated/exploited/poisoned by the propaganda/influence/hacking of the foreign country/race/class which is why we must go to war/round up/bomb them and stamp out any internal dissent/sympathy/collusion by our own pacifists/psychotics/smart asses.

    The Modern Autocrat/Despot/Mass Shooter’s Manifesto.

  7. These guys are just incapable of comprehending what “no law” means.

    1. It says congress shall make no law…

      It says nothing about the executive branch creating an EO. 😉

    2. But yes, they are as incapable of comprehending what “no law” means, as SCOTUS is with comprehending the word “infringed”.

  8. They’re coming at this all wrong. They really should be regulating what information voters can consider when determining who they’re pulling the lever for, not what information they can see.

  9. Lets just put this in the large, already extant, basket of things Congress does that are a direct conflict of interest.

    Remember how the STOCK Act’s online disclosure portion was amended something like 20 seconds before it’s passage to ‘protect’ members of Congress and the executive branch? Not that it was ever a particularly effective act, but that was a pretty big red flag in my book.

  10. “You can fool some of the people all of the time”…probably about half of them.

    1. I think the entire quote is “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, and that is more than enough to get elected”.

  11. Well, we have the framework of what ‘reasonable’ and ‘common sense’ regulations of the bill of rights looks like.

    All that is needed is a ‘public comment permit’, to be called a first amendment permit. You apply through your local sheriff, paying a few hundred non-refundable dollars. The sheriff makes sure that you have no criminal record, are a qualified US citizen, have completed a few hours of a class (about $200.00) on your responsibilities for use of the first amendment, and have paid another reasonable fee for the required fingerprints and background check.
    Then, if he so desires, he may issue the permit. If he declines the application, you may not use the first amendment. There is no route of appeal.

    Require all registrations for any web site, news site, and or comment section or chat room check that there is a valid and current first amendment permit for the person, and all is well. Any one with the attitude “I aim to misbehave” can be barred from all internet / web activity and fined and imprisoned, along with suspension of the first amendment license.

    That way, those nefarious Russians cannot fool us again.

    In addition, since they are in the same amendment, we can insist that all church attenders also obtain a permit.
    It is also obvious that ALL reporters and editors and the like must have an ‘assault speech’ permit as well, since they address high volumes of people in a high capacity manner.

    1. I dress my grievances multiple times a day, do I need a license for the first dressing or just the redressing?

  12. Make “reasonable efforts” to ensure that any political ads or messaging isn’t purchased by a foreign national, directly or indirectly.

    I don’t understand why this is considered so obviously vile that it must be forbidden? There’s always this point about foreign nationals giving ads for a US election? So? Why can’t they argue for it something? Enough question marks? Huh?

    1. It does make sense, although there is a question of it’s even possible.

      The idea being that since a foreign national is foreign, they should have no say in our political process. That might have been simple enough 200 years ago, but these days it’s functionally impossible so I’m not sure any laws will do anything other than have terrible second order consequences. Frankly, even the direct consequences are almost certainly shitty.

      Maybe there is a way, but I can’t think of one offhand that isn’t worse than the disease it aim’s to ‘cure’.

      1. Better throw out Tocqueville then. Fucking Frenchy’s comments on our country has been far too influential.

        Even without sarcasm, we have to at least appreciate the irony of the US telling others not to mess with foreign elections.

        1. That isn’t quite the same thing, in that philosophically we stole every single last concept we have from foreign thinkers when putting together our domestic government (partly because our forefathers were all foreign nationals ^_- ).

          That isn’t necessarily the same thing as a citizen of Spain attempting to influence an election in Texas, although proving some kind of direct connection would be pretty tough. Even proving that they directly paid you for your vote would be a pretty tough thing to prove unless you’re an idiot. Functionally though, this happens each and every day in our modern societies. Not even through government, but through everything from social media, to advertisements, to foreign corporate employment of domestic workers.

          That said, yes I absolutely do appreciate the irony of the U.S. telling other countries not to meddle. It’s a cut-and-dried case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’.

          1. That isn’t necessarily the same thing as a citizen of Spain attempting to influence an election in Texas, although proving some kind of direct connection would be pretty tough.

            I’m not sure I agree with your former point, though I can understand where you are coming from to some extent. All of the issues about feasibility of proving connection I completely agree with though. Even if I thought it was valid to ban foreign commentary I can easily see how attempts to ban it would lead to some terrible law. Basically, I’m trying to find common ground without saying “Agree to disagree” which everyone hates.

            1. There is a difference, to me anyway, between a foreign individual having direct influence on an election and an indirect influence on an election; or political system. Making indirect influence illegal is almost certainly impossible, but having direct influence is probably somewhat possible.

              Therein lies the problem, as one of the two categories is functionally impossible to control while the other should be but impossible to perfectly police. That said, almost no statute is possible to perfectly police so that’s less of a consideration.

              That’s before you even question if it’s a good idea or a bad idea. Purely on the mechanics it’s a halfway impossible task at best.

              1. Its only okay to influence elections indirectly if you’re really good at it.

    2. “”Make “reasonable efforts” to ensure that any political ads or messaging isn’t purchased by a foreign national, directly or indirectly.””

      The do as we say, not as we do philosophy.

      We are one of the biggest offenders of directly or indirectly screwing with elections of other countries.

  13. Really, I make a dumb quip. But all I can feel is disgust. This has been such a fucking disgrace of a search, and that the solution being given is censorship of speech is not surprising at all. When all other arguments fail thought is obviously to blame.

  14. In the wake of an election cycle so focused on not being the “establishment”, this kind of bill totally makes sense. For the establishment.

  15. McCain is an idiot and Democrats want to control online speech because they want to only have the media that supports them disseminating information. With the explosion of information online, the media no longer controls the political narrative and as a result, Democrats have become nothing more than a bi-coastal regional party. The power they once held has been lost and they see no way to recapture it as long as people with opposing points of view are permitted to speak freely. The entire focus on Russian FB ads is a smokescreen. The simple truth is the establishment on both sides wants to regulate political speech because free discussions are what have brought them to the point of losing their stranglehold on the system. They do not care about what is best for country, they only care about what is best for them and those who put money into their pockets.

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