By Megan Janetsky, OpenSecrets.org
The chair and vice chair of the Federal Election Commission sat side-by-side in a hearing Thursday where they discussed an upcoming proposal to increase regulations on certain political ads on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google.
Both the Republican chair, Caroline Hunter, and Democratic vice chair, Ellen Weintraub, were quick to say that they were “working in a collegial” manner to update advertiser disclosure requirements and “have spent a lot of quality time together recently.”
But when the hearing adjourned and a small cluster of commissioners, reporters and spectators broke off, it became clear that the new proposal struck a chord of contention between the two FEC leaders.
The discussion comes amid concerns that Russia will continue using messaging on digital platforms to stir discord in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. In recent years, the use of digital advertising in politics has skyrocketed, increasing more than 2,000 percent since 2014, a recent study said.
Last month, Weintraub publicly released details of her proposal that called for increased disclosure requirements for digital ads with “express advocacy” messaging — or ads that expressly tell audiences to vote for or against a specific candidate.
Broadcast v. Digital Political Ad Spending(2010-2020)Broadcast ($ in…Digital ($ in millio…2010201120122013201420152016*2017*2018*2019*2020$0$500$1000$1500$2000$2500$3000$3500$4000$4500$5000$5500
|Year||Broadcast ($ in millions)||Digital ($ in millions)|
“I’m very concerned about what happened in 2016, I’m very concerned about what could happen in 2018,” Weintraub said in an interview with OpenSecrets on Thursday. “This rulemaking is not going to solve that problem, but it will be a step in the right direction.”
The move has angered Hunter, who told Bloomberg Government last week that Weintraub seemed to believe that “grandstanding trumps good public policy.” She continued to voice her frustration after the Thursday hearing.
“Putting out one proposal early, I don’t think that’s helpful,” Hunter said. “I don’t think that helps the public dialogue at all.”
Now, as 2018 midterm elections gear up, Weintraub, Hunter and other commissioners are trying to push out a bipartisan draft of the proposal to vote on early next week. The commissioners were originally slated to present and vote on a completed draft Thursday but pushed the vote back because they said they were still chipping away at wording and technicalities.
Weintraub said the commissioners were around 60 percent of the way to being complete.
“It’s painstaking just like any other negotiation,” Weintraub said.
The bulk of advertising placed on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google are not “express advocacy” ads. Instead of using phrases like “vote for” or “vote against” in ads, buyers will often circle around the messages. For instance, an ad will condemn a stance on a specific issue and then tell viewers to contact a certain candidate to tell them they don’t like that stance.
By doing so, the messages don’t fall into the “express advocacy” criteria laid out by the FEC and therefore advertisers don’t have to report the ad. It, along with other loopholes, have allowed a large portion of digital ad buyers and their spending to fly under the radar.
Political Ad Spending 2014 v. 2018
|Medium||2014 Spending ($ in millions)||2018 Projected Spending ($ in millions)||Percent change|
|Out of Home||$635||$318||-50.1%|
The FEC proposal would only tackle “express advocacy” ads. Hunter said that the commission does not “have the authority to make it broader.”
“This rulemaking is narrow,” Hunter said. “It’s only for ads placed on the internet for a fee and with express advocacy. It’s a very narrow subset of advertisements that we’re talking about. They have to directly advocate for the election or defeat of a federal candidate, which is express advocacy, and they have to be placed on another person’s site for a fee.”
The role of the FEC in regulating online disclaimers for political advertising is a debate that’s stretched back years. The issue rose to the table most notably in 2011 when Facebook asked commissioners for an advisory opinion about whether to include disclaimers on their political ads; commissioners deadlocked in their decision.
Weintraub said the proposal was a place to start, but there’s a need for further regulations on digital advertising in politics, especially going into midterms.
“There is a longstanding debate about what the words (express advocacy) actually mean,” Weintraub said. “But there’s no question that the chair and the Republicans on the commission in general over time — particularly since 2008 — have taken a very narrow view of that.”
Hunter expressed concern about changing the FEC rules midway through an election cycle, a suggestion that appeared to frustrate Weintraub, who sighed when a reporter relayed Hunter’s apprehension.
“I mean is it really the rules of the game?” Weintraub said. “This is such a minor change … Are people really going to say, ‘Oh, it’s too late in the game for me to run a disclaimer now.’ Really? I don’t really buy that.”