The Feel Good, Do Nothing Honest Ads Act

There is obviously no disagreement that Russia interfered in the 2016 Presidential election.  Whether there was collusion with the Trump campaign is a whole other question and, quite frankly, the evidence- unless one is a conspiracy theorist- is scant, somewhat lower in quality than circumstantial at best and makes no logical or intuitive sense.

We know that Russian Internet cut-outs bought space on social media to spread a message sowing the seeds of discord.  They seemed to be non-partisan in their efforts.  According to Congressional testimony, about 126 million American Facebook users saw Russian propaganda.  Twitter noted over 2,700 Russian accounts and 36,000 Russian Internet bot accounts which is understandable since Twitter allows multiple accounts and use of pseudonyms.  Google noted over 1,100 Russian videos posted via YouTube.

All of this could be merely the tip of the iceberg and only what these tech companies have definitively traced to Russia.

Enter Congress with the introduction of the Honest Ads Act backed by Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mark Warner (D-VA) and, of course since he’s such a maverick, John McCain (?-AZ).  Essentially, this proposed law would broaden the definition of “electioneering communications.”  As anyone is familiar, during political seasons we are inundated with ads leading up to Election Day.  Those ads have a small, often unread statement at the bottom telling who paid for the ad.  Sometimes, it is the campaign itself, or possibly some outside advocacy group.

Unfortunately, such a system is not amenable to social media sites like Twitter, YouTube or Facebook since the Russian troll farms and bot sites do not create “political ads” or “electioneering communications.”  So, instead the law requires that tech companies store and archive all messages of a political nature on their social media platforms.  One doubts that John Q. Public will access and go through an archive on social media sites to determine who is behind a certain message and then make a political decision based on their research.  It will be a boon to bald-headed “media experts” and communications researchers, but no one else and, of course, they will be called as expert witnesses before some future Congressional inquiry every four years.

Thus far, the tech companies have been engaged in a form of self-censorship pulling down accounts because users violated the terms of service.  Most of the mischief by Russians was discovered through their sloppiness.  For example, some used Russian phone numbers, Russian IP addresses, or they paid for ads in rubles.  What will likely happen in the future is that they will simply structure their activities to technically comply with any law or site terms of service.  As Bloomberg says:

So, under the Honest Ads Act, a troll cleverly disguised as Jane Doe or John Smith, and ostensibly based in Random Location on Google Maps, U.S.A., will still be able to buy and run any kind of political ad — all from the outskirts of St. Petersburg. The transaction will be clearly recorded under the fake name and stored in a vast archive in which no one but a dedicated investigator will be able to find anything of value.

The trolls will also gleefully use the bill’s “news exemption,” which covers anything, appearing anywhere except political parties’ and candidates’ own media, that looks like a news story or an editorial. Expect “news” outlets owned by Jane Doe and John Smith (of the Internet Research Agency, but let’s not mention that) to spring up. The troll farm already owns dozens of Russian “news” outlets, after all.

Note: the Internet Research Agency is a Kremlin-backed troll factory.  The fact is these troll farms are very adept at what they do.  It is a low cost effort and content re-Tweeted or “shared” was not done for money.  It was done because people believed and fell for it, or loved the memes.

Furthermore, this bill addresses political advertisements and issue advocacy by considering online content as equivalent to the ads one sees on television or hears on the radio.  But, it ignores a very important fact: people online are not influenced by advertisements, but by viral content.  In effect, it treats social media platforms as a publisher and source of news dissemination which they clearly are not.

According to one study, six of the 470 fake account pages created by Russian trolls on Facebook reached 340 million Facebook users and elicited 19 million interactions through shares, like or comments.  That is tremendous bang for the buck.

There a lot of gullible people and voters out there.  Short of draconian measures bordering on outright censorship of social media sites- such as that which exists in China and, ironically Russia- nothing is going to overcome that gullibility.

The Honest Ads Act does very little to decrease the influence of foreign actors in American elections on social media.  It is feel-good only legislation with little effect requiring a massive, costly regulatory burden on tech companies and to what effect?  So that John McCain, Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner can slap themselves on the back and said they did “something,” but achieved nothing.  In fact, the Russian troll farms should probably be the biggest boosters of this bill since it gives the appearance of regulatory control while they know full well it is not.

Conversely, if censorship is the solution, then the Russians have achieved something beyond their wildest dreams.  They have then certainly undermined one of the key linchpins of American democracy- a restriction on free speech.

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