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Federal Election Commission Might Make Disclaimers Mandatory For Online Political Ads


Anonymous political advertising on the Internet is on the rise. The Federal Election Commission has been trying to do what it hasn't done before - write a disclosure rule for online advertisers, perhaps in time for the midterm elections. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The Federal Election Commission might make disclaimers mandatory for Internet political ads. They'd be the digital equivalent of this in TV ads.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: American Bankers Association is responsible for the content of this advertising.

OVERBY: That's from an endorsement ad in a Senate race. This afternoon, the FEC finished two days of hearings on disclaimers. Now someone has to actually write some proposed rules. The hearings are an accomplishment for FEC Vice Chair Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat who's been pushing for more transparency. At the hearings, she said Americans should know who's paying for those ads.


ELLEN WEINTRAUB: On their phone, on their desktop, on their laptop, on their tablets. However they are seeing information, they're entitled to know where it's coming from.

OVERBY: Commission Chairman Caroline Hunter, a Republican, was more cautious.


CAROLINE HUNTER: I know we all share the desire to try to come up with a rule in this case, and I know we'll work hard together to try to do so.

OVERBY: But the goal is limited to require disclosure only on ads that directly support or oppose a candidate. So take the Russian ads, the messages on Facebook and Google that sought to influence the 2016 presidential election. The newspaper USA Today did an analysis of some 3,500 Facebook ads from one Russian advertiser. There were more ads about race than about the presidential candidates. Lawyer Allen Dickerson of the deregulatory Institute for Free Speech cited that example to challenge the FEC's approach.

ALLEN DICKERSON: At most, according to USA Today, only 100 Russian-backed Facebook ads supported or opposed candidates.

OVERBY: He said the proposed disclaimers would have had little impact on the Russian advertising.

DICKERSON: It would have added a disclaimer to some subset of those 100 ads worth perhaps a few thousand dollars.

OVERBY: The anonymous Russian ads were only a tiny part of the 2016 ad wars, but they're part of a trend. Now in the midterm elections, undisclosed money is more prevalent than ever in politics. Sometimes it's called dark money. Robert Maguire is with the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. He tracks these secretive political groups. It's looking like a growth industry.

ROBERT MAGUIRE: We're seeing far more broadcast ads from organizations that don't disclose their donors.

OVERBY: It's not just the FEC looking at this. In February, special counsel Robert Mueller obtained 16 indictments in a probe of the Russian Internet Research Agency, the source of those 3,500 ads. And Capitol Hill lawmakers, mostly Democrats, are crafting bills they hope to advance after the midterm elections. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said secret money is just dangerous.


SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: If you have constructed a dark money channel so that hidden influence can be brought to bear on American politics, you don't know whose hands are hidden.

OVERBY: Whitehouse's bill, called the DISCLOSE Act, would apply the Stand By Your Ad provision to outside groups on the Internet, putting them into a spotlight many of them have avoided. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.