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Bloomberg's meme campaign underscores the loopholes in political-ad rules

Presidential candidates are paying social media influencers to spread political messages.

Mike Bloomberg at a campaign rally

Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg at a rally in Tennessee on Feb. 12.

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This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET's coverage of the voting in November and its aftermath.

Popular Instagram meme account @grapejuiceboys shared an image last week that featured direct messages with Mike Bloomberg, a Democratic presidential candidate. If you don't look too closely, the post appears to be a simple back-and-forth between the account and Bloomberg. 

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Presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg has been paying popular Instagram meme-makers to promote his campaign. 

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

"Hello Juice Boys. Can you post an original meme to make me look cool for the upcoming Democratic primary?" Bloomberg said in the direct message. "I don't think so (to be honest) your vibe is kinda off," @grapejuiceboys replied. Bloomberg fired back with lyrics from rapper 50 Cent, saying he put "Lamborghini doors on the Escalade."

What was easy to overlook: a small note in the caption disclosing Bloomberg had paid for the post.

The media mogul and former New York City mayor isn't the only politician using sponsored posts. Looking to grab the attention of voters, candidates have turned to social media accounts with large followings, like @grapejuiceboys, which has 2.7 million followers, to spread their messages. The use of so-called influencers, however, has sparked transparency concerns, including complaints from presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, because regulations that govern political advertising are outdated and murky. Social media companies such as Facebook don't consider political posts from influencers to be ads, allowing candidates to skirt certain rules. 

Here's what you need to know.

Is Bloomberg doing something different from other political campaigns with these posts?

Sort of. Bloomberg isn't the first presidential candidate to work with social media influencers, but no one has cranked it up the way his campaign has.

According to a New York Times report, the billionaire has been working with a company called Meme 2020, which teams up with more than a dozen popular Instagram accounts. Collectively, those accounts have more than 60 million followers. It's unclear how much Bloomberg has spent on the meme campaign, but it's probably a significant amount given that he reportedly spent more than $400 million on his campaign in about three months.

And Bloomberg is reaching beyond influencers in his use of social media, paying hundreds of California campaign workers to post about him on their personal accounts and send texts about the candidate, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

Aside from those considerations, though, Bloomberg isn't alone. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders worked with influencers in his 2016 campaign and has also partnered with popular accounts on YouTube and Amazon's Twitch to promote his candidacy, according to the Journal. President Donald Trump's campaign has advertised on YouTube channels. Former Democratic candidate Andrew Yang worked with a public relations firm that paid people to create memes that were shared with social media influencers. The memes promoted his proposal for a $1,000-per-month universal basic income.

Is there a problem with any of that activity?

Politicians want to get their message out, and social media is an effective way to do so. But because of the way social media is consumed, critics worry that users, who tend to skim their feeds on their phones, will miss the fine print that discloses who paid for a post.

The disclosure is important. Knowing that a campaign paid for a post might make users think twice about the message an influencer is promoting and, in turn, affect their votes.

Sponsored political posts from the Bloomberg campaign look different than conventional political ads on Facebook and Instagram, appearing more like everyday banter. The low-key presentation is part of what makes them so effective in grabbing people's attention. Normally a string of direct messages posted by a meme-maker wouldn't strike people as a political ad. 

Sabrina Singh, a spokeswoman for the Bloomberg campaign, said the sponsored posts were clearly marked, adding the campaign "went above and beyond to follow Instagram's rules."

The practice also raises concerns that politicians will bypass government and tech company rules governing political advertising. Because they fall outside of the rules, sponsored political posts could make it harder for journalists, researchers and advocacy groups to follow the money being spent on campaigns. 

What government agency is responsible for overseeing this type of advertising?

The Federal Election Commission regulates political advertising, but it hasn't clearly spelled out how it handles posts from social media influencers. Rules about how online ads have to be disclosed were written in 2006 and haven't been updated to address this issue.

In December, FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, who's chaired the commission several times, expressed her desire to see the rules updated. "The Federal Election Commission last wrote internet communication disclaimer regulations several eons ago, in 2006, when political internet advertising was in its infancy," she said in a statement at the time. "The Commission has since been unable to revamp its regulations to better tailor the disclaimer rules to today's far more significant and varied political internet advertising market."

In a tweet last week, Weintraub said influencers should disclose who's paying them and candidates should disclose who they're paying. Social media companies like Facebook should also include these influencer posts in their political ads libraries. 

"When social influencers get paid to post about candidates, let's have some transparency," she tweeted. 

There's one problem: The FEC doesn't have enough commissioners to change the regulations. The agency needs one more member.

What are the rules?

Political campaigns have to include a disclaimer that informs the public who paid for "public communications that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate for federal office," according to the FEC. That includes "communications" placed for a fee on another person's website. The rules, though, don't mention anything about influencer advertising.

Influencers that worked with Bloomberg disclosed they were paid by the presidential campaign. Users, though, might miss this information if they don't read the caption or the label in small print under the account name. 

How are social media companies like Facebook handling this?

Social media companies don't typically consider sponsored influencer content -- or posts from campaign employees --- to be ads. The reason for this is simple. The campaigns aren't paying the social media companies to promote the posts. They're paying the influencers. 

After Russian trolls used Facebook to sow division among Americans, the company started rolling out stricter rules for political advertisers. Facebook requires political advertisers in the US to verify their identity and include information about who paid for the ad. 

Twitter bans political ads, but that applies only to promoted tweets paid for by a campaign. 

Facebook and Twitter also maintain public databases that display ads but don't include sponsored influencer posts. Google, which owns YouTube, didn't respond to questions about whether influencer content is part of its political ads transparency report and database. 

Facebook has tried to make its stance clearer. On Friday, the company said US political candidates and campaigns could pay influencers for sponsored content if they followed disclosure requirements. The meme accounts that worked with Bloomberg contained disclosures in their captions when they were first published, but now the posts bear an official label that states they're part of a paid partnership.

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