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Digital ad disclosure bill faces questions, a close vote

A bill to require that paid political ads on social media include information about who paid for them passed the House Elections Committee late Tuesday — but very narrowly.

At issue: House Bill 1065 would require disclosure of any paid political ad on a public web site, web or digital application, network or search engine that sells political ads and has 100,000 or more U.S. visitors.

The bill is bipartisan, sponsored by Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) and David Lewis (R-Harnett). They say it’s intended to help mandatory disclosure regulations catch up with the way campaigns actually work now.

Political ad spending on social media – primarily Facebook – now exceeds spending on cable television, Harrison said. It went from $22 million to $1.4 billion between 2008 and 2016. Yet when voters see an ad online, they often have no idea who is paying for it.

“I feel like a lot of us feel like a lot of money is being spent on social media right now and it’s not being disclosed,” Harrison said.

Lewis, Harrison and Rep. John Hardister (R-Guilford) all called the bill fairly straightforward, but several on the committee said they were confused about how some of its provisions would work and wary of accidentally violating disclosure rules.

“In layman’s terms, explain to me how this affects me on Facebook,” said Rep. Michael Speciale (R-Craven).

Speciale asked whether “boosting” a social media post would count as paid advertising, saying he found the bill confusing and in some areas impractical. He anticipated those running campaigns would too, he said.

After several attempts to explain, Speciale and others on the committee did not seem much clearer.

“I am on the Elections Committee here with you and I have to say I no clue what it is we’re doing here,” Speciale said.

Lewis said he believes the bill will simply treat paid advertising online like all other paid advertising. Lewis offered to walk Speciale through how he would use Facebook boosted posts after the committee meeting — on a non-state computer.

Whitney Christensen, an attorney and lobbyist for Facebook, said the social media company has worked closely with the bill’s sponsors. It is “completely comfortable” with the new regulations, she said, and offered to get help for those on the committee who still had questions about how it would work on Facebook.

Becki Gray of the conservative John Locke Foundation said her group was less comfortable.

Gray said her group has “major concerns with crossing the threshold to regulate free speech on the internet for the first time.” She suggested holding the bill for a future “long” session of the General Assembly until it has been figured out further.

Melissa Price Kromm, director of  North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections, disagreed. Disclosure of paid political advertising doesn’t threaten free speech protections, she said – something that has been repeatedly upheld by the court. Change to the disclosure laws is necessary with consequential and hotly contested elections looming, she said.

“Let’s bring our disclosure laws into the 21st century,” Kromm said.

The committee voted 12-11 to send the bill to the House floor, which could mean it’s looking at fierce debate and another close vote there.

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