How to pro­tect US elec­tions from for­eign in­ter­fer­ence

The Tribune (SLO) - - Opinion - Amy Klobuchar is a U.S. sen­a­tor from Min­nesota and a Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. BY AMY KLOBUCHAR

We now know for cer­tain that Russia in­vaded our democ­racy. They didn’t use bombs, jets or tanks. In­stead, they planned a mission to un­der­mine the foun­da­tion of our elec­toral sys­tem. This mission, ac­cord­ing to spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller, was “sweep­ing and sys­tem­atic,” yet the U.S. re­mains vul­ner­a­ble to many of the same tac­tics uti­lized against us in 2016 and 2018.

This isn’t a par­ti­san is­sue. In the last pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Russia aimed its at­tack at the Demo­cratic can­di­date; next time it could be the Repub­li­can. But there are steps we can take to help pro­tect the elec­toral process.

Russia’s 2016 as­sault was care­fully planned. In 2014, Rus­sian agents landed on U.S. soil in order to gather in­for­ma­tion – to learn how to mimic us – so that their so­cial me­dia posts would be more be­liev­able. They de­vel­oped a so­phis­ti­cated net­work of on­line per­sonas backed by bots de­signed to make hate­ful and di­vi­sive posts go vi­ral.

Ac­cord­ing to dis­clo­sures made to Congress, 126 mil­lion Face­book users saw posts linked to Russia. That’s more than a third of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion. There were also thou­sands of Rus­sian-spon­sored YouTube videos and tens of thou­sands of tweets aimed at sway­ing the elec­tion. But all of this wasn’t fully un­der­stood un­til it was too late.

And the threat isn’t over. Last month, FBI Di­rec­tor Christo­pher Wray de­scribed the 2018 ef­forts by Russia to in­ter­fere in Amer­i­can elec­tions as “a dress re­hearsal for the big show in 2020.” We need to take ac­tion now to pre­vent a re­cur­rence of 2016 – or some­thing even worse.

Cur­rently, po­lit­i­cal ads sold on TV and ra­dio are re­quired to dis­close the or­ga­ni­za­tions that paid for them. This is a sim­ple re­quire­ment that the Supreme Court – in­clud­ing the late Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia – up­held. But right now, the same rules don’t ap­ply to ads sold on­line. This leaves a huge loop­hole in the law – es­pe­cially because on­line ads have be­come more pop­u­lar than ever. In 2018, an es­ti­mated $2.3 bil­lion was spent on on­line ads, com­pared with $1.4 bil­lion in 2016, and just $71 mil­lion in the 2014 elec­tion cy­cle.

While some so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies have taken steps to im­ple­ment new trans­parency rules, we need more than a patch­work of com­pany-gen­er­ated solutions to en­sure that po­lit­i­cal ads pur­chased by our ad­ver­saries are ex­posed. We need rules of the road that ap­ply to all so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies.

The bi­par­ti­san Hon­est Ads Act, which I in­tro­duced last week with Sens. Lind­sey Graham, R-S.C., and Mark R. Warner, D-Va., would shine a light on the dark money be­ing used to buy on­line po­lit­i­cal ads.

The goal is sim­ple: to bring our laws into the 21st cen­tury to en­sure vot­ers know who is pay­ing to in­flu­ence our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. The leg­is­la­tion would achieve this by amend­ing ex­ist­ing laws that now ap­ply to po­lit­i­cal ads sold in print and on TV and ra­dio, and ex­tend their reach to on­line po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing.

The Hon­est Ads Act would re­quire dig­i­tal plat­forms with at least 50 mil­lion monthly view­ers – which in­cludes ma­jor tech com­pa­nies like Face­book, Google, and Twit­ter – to main­tain a pub­lic file of po­lit­i­cal ads sold on their plat­form by a per­son or group who spends more than $500 on po­lit­i­cal ads in a year. The file would con­tain a dig­i­tal copy of the advertisement and key in­for­ma­tion about who paid for the ad and who the ad was de­signed to tar­get.

A last­ing legacy of the late Sen. John McCain is the bi­par­ti­san Cam­paign Fi­nance Re­form Act of 2002 – also known as McCain-Fein­gold – which, among other things, re­quired politi­cians to say, “I approve this mes­sage,” and re­quired more trans­parency for po­lit­i­cal ads.

McCain knew the next frontier of cam­paign fi­nance re­form would be clos­ing the loop­holes that are cur­rently be­ing ex­ploited by for­eign ad­ver­saries to sow divi­sion among Amer­i­cans. That’s why he was the lead Repub­li­can spon­sor of the Hon­est Ads Act when we first in­tro­duced this leg­is­la­tion in the last Congress. It didn’t be­come law in that Congress, but we are hope­ful it will now.

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