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FEC Vice Chair: "Pizzagate" Embodies Need for New Online Ad Rules (Exclusive)

Created: 09 February, 2018
Updated: 21 November, 2022
5 min read

Longtime Democratic FEC Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub is the force behind new rules aimed at making online political advertising more transparent.

After Russian state agents used social media platforms to blast out misinformation from bot farms meant to foment domestic discord during the 2016 presidential election, it changed what we thought to expect from online communities.

Twitter, Facebook, and Google seemed caught off guard as well and received a sound spanking by congressional committees for lax oversight.

Check out IVN's interview with her at the Unrig The System Summit at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana:

How We Got Here

“The reason this is all gotten muddled is that a number of years ago Facebook and Google came in and basically said, ‘We want you to declare that we are exempt from these kinds of disclaimer requirements because the ads are so small on the internet.’ Well, sure they're small, but my cell phone is small and yet I can discover most of the information in the world it seems by just asking it a question. The 'small' argument really doesn’t work anymore. “

Pulling at Threads

Cut to early 2018 and Weintraub has an accord from within the bipartisan FEC to require online political ads that advocate for a particular candidate to feature a disclaimer stating who paid for them.

“You need a thread to pull. You need to have some kind of disclaimer, disclosure information on the ads. Because if there is nothing there and somebody says ‘Oh we think that might be coming from an illegal source, then you’ve got no thread to pull,” says Weintraub.

The tough part is to figure out what is what. Because in 2016, Americans were blindsided at first – from lawmakers to candidates, media outlets, voters, and social media users.

It calls us to define a social media post, from an ad. Americans are confused because it can become murky.

After all, there are a million ways to craft an ad that makes it about an issue and not a candidate.

Increasing Sophistication

Increasing citizen's sophistication in reading the material and figuring out what's real and what's not is pivotal.

“The incentive, the economic incentive, is such that the social media companies just keep reinforcing people's ideas. They give them more of what they already heard. They say ‘oh if you like this article we're going to give you five more articles that say exactly the same thing, to the point where you get so reinforced in your own worldview that you think there is no other point of view," says Weintraub.

"What if instead, they said when you click on something you know, 'Here are four articles that say the same thing and here's one article that said something different just so you know, for an alternative point of view you can click on this.'

And even if most people wouldn't click on it at least it would at some level register that there is another point of view. There are other ways of looking at the same set of facts, assuming that we are talking about facts.”

Example #1 Pizza Gate

An excellent example of murky information (to say the very least) involves Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, pizza, and an alleged pedophile ring in Washington, DC.

“I mean we had this bizarre spectacle people, who may be not people, who are promoting this story online of this pedophile ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington and somebody actually showed up with a gun to try and free these children who are supposedly stuck in this ring there, and people are diving under the table at this pizza parlor," says Weintraub.

"One would hope that somebody would read a story like that and go well that can’t be true. But people actually believed it. There were small riots that were fomented because people in other countries, in Russia, started different groups with opposing points of view and Americans joined those groups and showed up at events that were organized by those groups.”

Moving The Dial

Weintraub says social media giants are on board with the FEC draft rules and are in fact taking steps of their own to track organizations and funding pouring into the online political space:

“In this go-round, when I reached out specifically to Facebook and Google, and Twitter and I said, ‘Please weigh in, we want to hear what you have to say as to whether we should try to do something here to improve the information that the American people will have about these ads,' they all came in and said we actually welcome this initiative and we would like to get some guidance from the government as to what we ought to be doing and how we can do it better.

So I appreciate that effort at cooperation, and I'm hoping that is going to continue over the next few months as we take this project forward.”

She is going to push very hard to get rules on the books in 2018. It’s only going to affect a very small slice, but Weintraub says that was all she could get her colleagues to agree to:

“When I suggested that maybe some things have changed in the online world since 2006, the last time we looked at anything very comprehensively, and that it might behoove us to take another look, they walled that off. They said no way are we going to reopen that but again we got 150,000 citizens to weigh in and ask us to do this much. And I think with continued pressure by the American public and continued concern with what's going on out there, maybe we can move the dial a little bit.”

While the FEC works on these new regulations, a bipartisan proposal in Congress called “The Honest Ads Act” will tackle it from a legislative angle.

So pay attention to your Facebook and Twitter feeds, because if Ellen Weintraub has her way, we will see a difference in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections -- because after all, paying attention is half the battle.