The first major legislative effort to rein in foreign interference in US elections will kick off Thursday afternoon on Capitol Hill, where Democratic Senators Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar will field questions from reporters over a new bill crafted, they said, to "improve transparency of online political ads."
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) (R) speaks as Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) (L) listens during a news conference at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on May 16, 2016 in Arlington, Virginia. Photo: Getty
The bill, known as The Honest Ads Act, will seek to impose new rules on online political ads similar to those currently imposed on traditional broadcast media. The effort comes as Congress continues to investigate highly-targeted foreign propaganda during the 2016 campaign, which reached, by some estimates, tens of millions of Americans via Facebook alone.
In addition to Klobuchar and Warner — the ranking Democrats on the Senate Rules and Intelligence committees, respectively — the bill is co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Service. Gizmodo has also learned that The Honest Ads Act has received a stamp of approval from the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, whose president, Trevor Potter, is a former Republican chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
"In 2016 Russians bought online political ads designed to influence our election and divide Americans," the lawmakers wrote in a Wednesday press release. "The content and purchaser(s) of those online advertisements are a mystery to the public because of outdated laws that have failed to keep up with evolving technology. The Honest Ads Act would help prevent foreign actors from influencing our elections by ensuring that political ads sold online are covered by the same rules as ads sold on TV, radio, and satellite."
It remains unclear how exactly the bill will account for the unique challenges of regulating online ads, versus those broadcast over public airwaves. (At time of writing, Gizmodo had not reviewed a copy of the bill's language.) Moreover, much of the Russian propaganda identified in recent weeks — widely attributed to a St. Petersburg-based troll farm loyal to the Kremlin — did not take the shape of traditional campaign ads ostensibly covered under such laws.
Although Twitter and Google were apparently key to spreading fake news last year, much of the information war took place on Facebook, where hundreds of pages dedicated to US election issues were reportedly controlled by Russian trolls. The content posted by these accounts appears largely aimed at further polarising American voters around hot-button issues, including gun control, immigration, and police brutality.
Thanks to the reporting of Russian news outlet RBC, we've also learned that the Russian campaign went as far as to con Americans into protesting on behalf of a fictitious organisation called "BlackMattersUS." The group also established a group called "Black Fist," which encouraged African Americans to take self-defence training; its website contains slogans such as, "Be ready to protect your rights" and "Let them know that Black Power Matters." (Incidentally, an FBI intelligence assessment leaked in August reveals that the bureau's counterterrorism division has labelled members of such groups "Black Identity Extremists.")
On Wednesday, BuzzFeed reported that Twitter — previously chided by Sen. Warner for a lackadaisical approach the investigation — sat on its hands for 11 months after being notified that an account, which trafficked in fake news and claimed to speak on behalf of the Tennessee Republican Party, was fake. The account was identified by the RBC news outlet as one controlled by the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm reportedly funded through a company run by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a confidant of President Vladimir Putin.
Representatives of Google, Facebook, and Twitter are expected to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee next month.