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FEC Takes On Online Political Ads


Russian influence in the 2016 U.S. election left regulators here looking for ways to improve election law, regulators like Ellen Weintraub, the Democratic vice chair of the Federal Election Commission. Today, that agency begins two days of hearings about online political advertising. The FEC is looking at making some political ads say who paid for them.

ELLEN WEINTRAUB: What you would see is disclaimer information that would tell you where the ad is coming from. Now, I'm not anticipating that anybody's going to see an ad that says paid for by Vladimir Putin...

GREENE: (Laughter). OK.

WEINTRAUB: ...But I think it would, in addition to providing better information to the American public, also help to deter bad conduct from happening in the first instance.

GREENE: OK. We should be clear the commission is considering just a small step. It's a step that would target one type of online political ad that it calls express advocacy. This is an ad that doesn't just address an issue, it directly endorses a candidate.

WEINTRAUB: What we know about from the last election, a lot of ads were placed that were what are generally termed issue ads, ads that are designed to inflame people's passions but stop short of saying, and therefore you should vote for or against a particular candidate. I think that there is more that could be done to address those ads and to ensure that those ads are not being funded by foreign money, but that's not what we're doing.

GREENE: Let's say someone writes an opinion piece about an issue but stops short of calling for a certain candidate to win. The person pays Facebook to target that to a certain audience. That would stop short of being express advocacy because it's not calling for one candidate to win over the other.

WEINTRAUB: We would look at the ad itself and look to whether it is express advocacy in order to determine whether this particular rule that I am hoping we're going to be able to get passed will apply.

GREENE: A specific ad keeps coming to my mind because it's infamous. There was this ad that was linked to the Internet Research Agency backed by the Kremlin in Russia. It has this image of Satan and Jesus...

WEINTRAUB: I knew you were going to bring that one in.

GREENE: ...Arm wrestling. Yeah. A lot of people talk about this one. There's text that has Satan saying, if I win, Clinton wins. And then you have Jesus saying, not if I can help it. If you're talking not specifically about Clinton versus Trump, but about Satan versus Jesus, I mean, is that express advocacy? Where does that fall?

WEINTRAUB: You know, that has not been specifically presented to the commission, but I bet if it were that we would have a disagreement about that. Personally, I would say that's express advocacy. I don't think there's really any confusion about what the designer of that ad was trying to accomplish.

GREENE: What would the argument against that be?

WEINTRAUB: That it doesn't specifically say vote for or vote against, and it does not specifically reference the election.

GREENE: So how much do you think this rulemaking will prevent foreign influence in the upcoming election, 2018, looking forward to 2020? Is this going to make a big difference?

WEINTRAUB: It's a small step forward, but it's a positive step forward. And I think that what has happened is that, really, the awareness of the platforms has also been raised. So whether there is an ultimate fine levied on anybody who doesn't run a disclaimer, I think the platforms are paying a lot of attention to this issue and that they are going to make sure that the ads that are run on their platforms comply with our rules.

GREENE: Is there a risk in going too far if the government and government commissions try and regulate what is supposed to be, you know, a free and open marketplace, which is the Internet?

WEINTRAUB: Well, certainly not from this rulemaking. Right now, all that we are looking at is making sure that when you see an ad, whether it's on your phone or on your desktop or your laptop or your tablet, that you will have some way of identifying where that ad is coming from if it is one that is trying to persuade you to vote for or against a candidate. I think that the agency has come together because we recognize that this is not an issue that can be ignored.

GREENE: Thanks so much for talking to us.

WEINTRAUB: It has been my pleasure.

GREENE: That was Ellen Weintraub. She is the Democratic vice chair of the Federal Election Commission. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.