Senators aim to halt bogus political ads on Facebook

A bill would require more transparency in political advertising on Facebook, as well as any online site.

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2 min read

Sen. John McCain is co-sponsoring the Honest Ads Act.

Office of Sen. John McCain

Some US senators are looking to beef up laws around political ads that appear online, given apparent Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

It's largely believed the election was at least partially swayed by bogus political ads on Facebook, Twitter and Google. Democratic Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are teaming up with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona on the Honest Ads Act to try to stop future interference.

According to a preview of the act seen by Axios, the bill would amend the current Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 to include paid internet and digital advertisements. 

"In 2016 Russians bought online political ads designed to influence our election and divide Americans," reads a statement from Klobuchar and Warner. "The content and purchaser(s) of those online advertisements are a mystery to the public because of outdated laws that have failed to keep up with evolving technology."

The Honest Ads Act  would create the same rules for online political ads that already cover ads sold on TV and radio. That means certain disclosures would be required, such as who paid for the ads.

It would require online platforms, such as Facebook, "to make reasonable efforts to ensure that foreign individuals and entities are not purchasing political advertisements in order to influence the American electorate." 

Facebook, Google and Twitter have acknowledged that more could have been done to prevent the placement of such ads on their sites. Facebook has said that more than $100,000 worth of ads were bought by what now appear to be Russian agents, while Twitter said it's discovered 201 accounts that may be tied to those same agents. Google also reportedly found that Russians paid for tens of thousands of dollars on ads on YouTube, Gmail and Google search.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said last week that the company intends to fully cooperate with Congress, as well as release information on how the ads were targeted to specific audiences.

"Things happened on our platform in this election that should not have happened," Sandberg said. "We know we have a responsibility to do anything we can to prevent that."

Other Facebook executives are also speaking up.

"We stand with lawmakers in their effort to achieve transparency in political advertising. We have already announced the steps Facebook will take on our own and we look forward to continuing the conversation with lawmakers as we work toward a legislative solution," Erin Egan, Facebook's vice president for US Public Policy, said in a statement to CNET. 

A Twitter spokeswoman said that "we look forward to engaging with Congress and the [Federal Election Commission] on these issues." 

McCain and Google did not respond to a request for comment.