Twitter has gotten the jump on any requirements that might result from the “Honest Ads Act” or similar future legislation that would compel social media and online entities to adhere to the same political ad disclosure standard as broadcasters by saying it will identify ad purchasers, ads, their targets and make that information available for review.
The “Honest Ads Act,” sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Mark Warner, D-Va.; and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., presses online companies like Facebook and Google to make “reasonable efforts to ensure that foreign individuals and entities are not purchasing political advertisements in order to influence the American electorate" and would amend “the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002's definition of electioneering communication to include paid Internet and digital advertisements.”
Facebook in September said that an internal investigation found a Russian "troll farm" bought ads from the social media giant and apparently planted them, some in targeted markets, "to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights," company CSO Alex Stamos wrote in a blog post.
Pledging that the company will improve controls for customers and adopt "stricter advertising policies,” Twitter General Manager of Revenue, Product and Engineering Bruce Falck wrote in a blog post that part of the initiative includes the launch of “an industry-leading transparency center that will offer everyone visibility into who is advertising on Twitter, details behind those ads, and tools to share” feedback with the company.
“To make it clear when you are seeing or engaging with an electioneering ad, we will now require that electioneering advertisers identify their campaigns as such,” Falck wrote. “We will also change the look and feel of these ads and include a visual political ad indicator.”
The company plans to define issues-based ads and integrate them into the approach it has outlined for electioneering (political) ads. While Twitter is “committed to stricter policies and transparency around issue-based ads,” Falck said there is currently “no clear industry definition” for them and will require the concerted efforts of industry leaders, policymakers, advertisers and online platforms.
"Twitter's announcement to label political ads and create a transparency center is a step in the right direction. The political ad situation all boils down to knowing your customer, a simple task that quickly turns complex when dealing with the digital ecosystem due to its highly-dynamic and opaque nature,” said Chris Olson, CEO of The Media Trust. “Now's the time for any website operator to adopt better controls to identify the parties involved in rendering web pages, evaluate their activity and/or content and quickly terminate unauthorized behavior."
Twitter's announcement comes a day after Republicans and members of the advertising industry emerged from a House subcommittee hearing on prospective regulations and laws to govern political ad disclosures critical of the proposals. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., said the Senate's proposed law would compromise free speech.
“The idea that we're going to allow regulators, a group of bureaucrats, to determine what we will be able to see in terms of social media or other formats offends me, and I will certainly oppose that in whatever way I can,” Mitchell told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Technology.
Committee Chairman Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, according to The Hill, told reporters later that while he didn't “necessarily know” the act was an appropriate solution, he believed that "colleagues on both sides of the aisle want to make sure that we do everything we can to defend our liberal — "little i" — institutions against foreign actors.