Senate bill would make online political ads more transparent

Legislation floated by two Democratic senators would enhance transparency for online political ads, requiring social media companies like Facebook and Twitter to keep a public file of election ads and communications.

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The bill by Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota would try to fill what they call a "major gap" in election advertising transparency. In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, the two say the legislation would also require companies to "make reasonable efforts" to ensure that election ads are not purchased directly or indirectly by a foreign national.

The letter was sent Thursday, the same day that Facebook said it will provide the contents of 3,000 ads bought by a Russian agency to congressional investigators and make political advertising on its platform more transparent.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his company will require political ads to disclose who is paying for them. Warner and Klobuchar said their bill would "formalize, and expand" what Facebook has promised, bringing regulation of online electioneering more in line with broadcast and print advertising. Federal regulations now require television and radio stations to make publicly available the details of political ads they air. That includes who purchased the ad, when it runs and how much it costs.

The legislation would require digital platforms with 1 million or more users to maintain the file of electioneering communications purchased by a group or person spending more than $10,000 on online political ads. The file would also include copies of the ads, a description of the audience targeted, the number of views generated and other relevant information.

After months of Facebook secrecy about the issue, the two senators write the company "now seems to realize that there is a major gap in transparency and accountability for digital ads."

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The bill would also apply to other popular social media outlets like Twitter, which is meeting with the Senate intelligence committee next week. Warner is the top Democrat on that panel, which is one of several congressional committees investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. The panel has been scrutinizing the spread of false news stories and propaganda on social media.

Congress has so far been reluctant to regulate social media companies. But Warner and others have called for better transparency laws since Facebook acknowledged earlier this month that hundreds of phony Facebook accounts, likely run from Russia, spent about $100,000 on ads aimed at stirring up divisive issues such as gun control and race relations during the 2016 campaign.

Lawmakers have said they want to know more about the content of the ads pushed out by the Russian-based Internet Research Agency and whether they targeted specific voters or locations in the United States.

"With social media you can specifically target these ads, and if you don't happen to see it, you may never know what's out there in the ether," Warner said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday.

Clint Watts, a counterterrorism expert who tracks social media accounts pushing Russian talking points, said Twitter may have even more to answer for than Facebook. The company may not even know the identities behind some Russian-operated accounts on its platform.

"There's gotta be some sort of legislation, or this will happen again," said Watts, a Robert A. Fox fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.


Associated Press writers Chad Day and Tom LoBianco contributed to this report.