WASHINGTON (Sept. 28, 2017)—Maryland lawmakers are asking the Federal Election Commission to take steps to block foreign governments and overseas entities from buying political ads on social media.
The move follows Facebook's disclosure on Sept. 6 that a Russian company with alleged ties to the Kremlin purchased more than $100,000 worth of advertisements on Facebook in an attempt to influence the 2016 election.
In a letter to the Federal Election Commission, Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Reps. Elijah Cummings and John Sarbanes, all of Maryland, joined 16 other Democratic colleagues asking for changes in federal regulations that would block foreign political ad buys like the ones Facebook revealed.
"Social media platforms offer the ability to target millions of users based upon a wealth of highly-detailed information," the letter said. "As we have seen, the low cost of reaching these users equips hostile foreign actors with a powerful new tool for disruption of our democratic process...To that end, we encourage the Federal Election Commission to take immediate steps to understand the threats posed to our democratic process by foreign influenced internet and social media advertisement."
Sarbanes is chairman of the Democracy Reform Task Force, a congressional group that says its purpose is to "confront the Trump administration's conflicts of interest and ethical lapses, and fight back against special-interest policies in Congress" and "improve accountability and transparency in government."
Other signatories to the letter have strongly criticized the Trump administration and some have spoken forcefully about Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.
The letter references intelligence community assessments of possible interference in the election and notes that FEC regulations prohibit any foreign entity or government from "directly or indirectly" spending in U.S. elections.
It requests the FEC reply with proposals by October 4. The FEC declined to comment on the matter.
But one of its commissioners, Ellen Weintraub, said Wednesday on MSNBC, "I think that we leave the door open when we leave room for people to act without any disclosure, then we just leave the door open for people to take advantage of that and that's what we're seeing."
The FEC amended its rules regarding internet advertising in 2006 but the changes only encompassed paid internet advertising placed on another person's website and did not cover any other form of internet communication.
"(The) one thing that the commission and the public agreed on even as far back as 2006, the last time we addressed this, was that, yes, we want to have a lot of opportunity on the internet for people to exchange ideas and to engage in robust debate. But we still want to have limits on paid advertising," Weintraub said.
The revelations by Facebook link the ad purchases to a St. Petersburg-based "troll farm" known as the Internet Research Agency, although the name remains unconfirmed. According to Facebook, some 470 fake or spurious accounts were linked to this entity.
Facebook's security chief, Alex Stamos, wrote in a blog post that the ads "appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages," in a method consistent with information operations that Facebook analysed in a white paper earlier this year.
A 14-page report in January by U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that hackers linked to the Russian government actively sought to undermine faith in the electoral process and assist Donald Trump's presidential campaign.
A separate assessment by the Project on Computational Propaganda, an independent investigative group, found that millions of political messages via the social media platform Twitter were generated by automated accounts, or bots, with many producing pro-Trump comments.
"Not only did the pace of highly automated pro-Trump activity increase over time, but the gap between highly automated pro-Trump and pro-Clinton activity widened from 4:1 during the first debate to 5:1 by election day," the assessment said. It did not specify an actor responsible for the automated tweets.
How to regulate social media has been a gray area since it may be categorized as affecting political activity and speech, but the experience of 2016 has left many people of all political stripes concerned about the possibility of Russian meddling.
"Next year's election is right around the corner. Therefore, we must act quickly to prevent foreign agents from continuing to meddle in our democratic process," Sarbanes said in an email to Capital News Service.
"Facebook's latest announcement that it plans to improve its political ad disclosure regime – along with its decision to provide Congress with thousands of Russian-bought ads intended to influence the 2016 election – is a step in the right direction," the congressman said.
Cardin, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, previously has spoken strongly about his belief that the United States faced a coordinated assault during the election process and introduced the Counteracting Russian Hostilities Act of 2017 in January "in response to cyber intrusions by the Government of the Russian Federation."
Parts of the bill were eventually incorporated in legislation strengthening sanctions against Russia that was passed by Congress last summer with a bipartisan majority over the objections of the White House.
"To get to figure out exactly what happened and to prevent it from ever happening again, the Senator is supportive of the Congressional inquiries that are ongoing," said Cardin spokesman Sean Bartlett.
Russian interference in the presidential election "should trouble our entire country," said Van Hollen spokeswoman Bridgett Frey.
She added the senator "is actively engaged in the ongoing Senate investigations on this important issue, and he will keep fighting to strengthen our democracy."
"The FEC needs to establish industry-wide guidelines for internet advertisement platforms to prevent foreign governments from interfering in our electoral process. Congress should also get in the game by enacting appropriate legislative reforms to stop hostile actors from threatening the integrity of our elections," continued Sarbanes to CNS.
In what appears to be a reference to the Trump campaign's possible links to Russian election tampering, the letter also asks "what measures of coordination can be readily utilized by the FEC to monitor illicit coordination between a campaign and a third party political spender, including foreign actors."
"I believe there are already laws on the book about colluding with foreigners to influence an election," said Bartlett in response to a question regarding future actions if collusion is found.
According to Bartlett, one proposal gaining traction among Democrats is making digital platforms subject to the same oversight as television and radio advertising.