Commentary, News

Op-Ed: N.C. must change the faceless nature of online political ads

Facebook is taking a lot of licks these days, and deservedly so.

But Melissa Price Kromm, coalition director for N.C. Voters for Clean Elections (NCVCE), a group advocating for some sorely-needed election transparency, says the Facebook controversy should also make us consider North Carolina’s perilously outdated campaign finance laws, particularly as it pertains to anonymous online political ads.

It is a must-read, because the 2020 election cycle is shaping up to be a whirlwind. And North Carolinians should know who’s paying to influence them.

From the op-ed, which originally ran Monday in the McClatchy papers, The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign made an important point by purchasing Facebook ads that claimed founder Mark Zuckerberg endorsed President Donald Trump.

This was completely false and the campaign was deliberately trolling Facebook’s lack of rules regarding political ads. Despite it being so clearly untrue, the ads ran anyway. This demonstration of the potential to spread misinformation should not make us ask a private, for-profit company, Facebook, to have tighter rules. These are our elections — the foundation of our democracy — we are talking about. Instead, Warren’s ad highlights the need for election laws to catch up to the changing times.

It might shock you to know that North Carolina’s campaign finance disclosure laws have not kept up with changing technology. And this is a serious problem. We’ve all seen the special interest attack ads that run on social media without any clue who paid for them. That’s because North Carolina has not updated its laws to mandate a disclaimer — otherwise known as “Paid for by” lines — on many digital ads or require disclosure of much of the money behind digital ads.

Legislators’ slow reaction to changing technology has created a blind spot that special interests exploit by running digital campaign ads which in many cases are not required to provide disclaimer or disclosure. With an election coming up and campaigns moving into digital mediums, this major loophole will wreak havoc on the 2020 election.

Little information is provided to the public about these digital ads.One can track and see a print ad by, for example, purchasing a newspaper. Anyone with a TV or radio can see or hear a television or radio ad. However, the nature of campaign digital ads means you have to be targeted to see the ad.

According to polling by Voters’ Right to Know, 81% of American voters believe they should have the right to know the money behind elections — an almost unheard-of amount of agreement in these politically divisive times.

The good news is that a bipartisan group of North Carolina legislators is seeking to bring our election laws into the 21st century with the common-sense disclosure of digital ads. House Bill 700 requires disclaimers and disclosure closing this loophole, ensuring disclosure for all paid for digital campaign ads.

Currently, there are loopholes that allow certain entities to place digital campaign ads without a “Paid for by” line and that allow certain entities to hide the money behind the digital ads. This is mainly because our campaign finance laws have not kept up with changing technology.

House Bill 700 narrowly defined qualified digital ads as those placed with a fee and would require most campaign entities, supporting or opposing candidates or those mentioning a candidate 30 days prior to an election, to place a disclaimer on their qualified digital ad and file qualified digital communications disclosure report. This is in line with the disclosure laws currently in place for TV, radio, and newspaper advertising, and merely bring our state’s political spending laws into the 21st century of digital communications.

It does not come as a surprise to anyone that dark money groups oppose reasonable efforts to close this loophole. They would rather continue to try and influence your vote from the shadows of anonymity. They will cry that their free speech is being hampered. But paid speech is not the same as free speech.

Television, radio and newspaper political ads are routinely subject to disclosure requirements not because of the content of the speech, but because money has been spent to amplify the speech.

The U.S. Supreme Court has again and again upheld disclosure requirements, even as it has allowed more entities to spend money and influence election outcomes. The dark-money groups’ reasoning tries to confuse the discussion by pretending that your individual political posts and conversations online are the same as paid ads by coordinated, well-resourced campaigns.

This lack of transparency means that voters are left in the dark about who is attempting to influence them, and there is little accountability for bad actors – including foreign nationals, who are legally barred from spending on U.S. elections.

This is how trust in the democratic process erodes. In order to provide transparency and accountability to safeguard our political system, we must address these challenges and fix these loopholes.

(Disclosure: Policy Watch Director Rob Schofield and Bill Rowe, deputy director of advocacy for the N.C. Justice Center — Policy Watch’s parent nonprofit — sit on NCVCE’s board of directors). 

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