The "Honest Ads Act" Will Hurt American Citizens, Not Russian Trolls

COMMENTARY Election Integrity

The "Honest Ads Act" Will Hurt American Citizens, Not Russian Trolls

May 31st, 2019 3 min read
COMMENTARY BY
John W. York, Ph.D.

Policy Analyst

John is a policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) take questions during a press conference to introduce the 'Honest Ads Act,' on Capitol Hill, October 19, 2017. Drew Angerer / Staff / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

In the run-up to the 2016 election, Russian agents working for the Internet Research Agency (IRA) disseminated 2.1 million tweets.

What constitutes a "reasonable effort" isn't defined in the act.

The Honest Ads Act could easily muzzle someone, all right, but it won't be the Russians, or any other foreign entity. It will be the American people themselves.

Few issues seem bipartisan in today's toxic political atmosphere, but concern over Russian interference in the 2016 election is one of them. So it wasn't surprising to see Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) join Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) to support the Honest Ads Act. What's not to like?

Quite a bit, actually. The act would do little to stop Russian trolls. It would, however, make it more difficult for American citizens to voice their own opinions regarding candidates for office.

The threat the Honest Ads Act is supposed to address is certainly troubling, but often overstated. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Russian agents working for the Internet Research Agency (IRA) disseminated 2.1 million tweets. In addition, the IRA purchased about 3,000 Facebook advertisements.

These may seem like big numbers, but given that there are 500 million tweets sent every day and 3.3 million posts to Facebook each minute, the Russians' offensive falls a bit short of the blitzkrieg described in the press.

That's not to say it doesn't deserve a serious response. It does. However, only one major provision of the Honest Ads Act would directly combat Russia's tactics. The bill would require that internet platforms, television, and radio stations "make reasonable efforts to ensure that (electioneering) communications ... are not purchased by a foreign nation, directly or indirectly." 

What constitutes a "reasonable effort" isn't defined in the act. Nor is it clear how Google, Facebook or any other online platform could determine whether a foreign nation had indirectly paid for a communication.

One way would be for companies such as Facebook to demand that all non-profits and corporations attempting to place political communications disclose all of their donors. This would certainly violate basic privacy rights, and the right of Americans to freely associate with groups such as the National Rifle Association or the National Abortion Rights Action League, but it is hard to know how else such companies would meet the proposed legislation's requirements.

In the era of leaks, doxxing and flash mobs, however, this could expose donors to harassment, intimidation, property damage and even bodily harm. These dangers are bound to hit closer to home for conservatives given that popular culture and, increasingly, corporate boardrooms have turned decisively to the left, with those who dissent from what is considered politically correct treated as pariahs.

Conversely, the owners of digital platforms may decide not to broadcast political speech at all. When Washington state imposed new disclosure rules, Google stopped running political advertisements for fear that they could not consistently meet new disclosure requirements. A similar bill in Canada led Google to drop political ads there as well. These types of rules act to censor and diminish speech.

The sponsors of the Honest Ads Act may not count the suppression of political advertising by American citizens as a loss. Indeed, the most sweeping provisions of the Honest Ads Act would not impact foreign meddlers at all. They are targeted directly at restricting the First Amendment rights of American citizens.

For instance, the bill would require all "public communications," whether they are sent over the internet, through the mail, or by any other means, to contain a disclaimer noting the candidate or organization responsible for the advertisement. Television and radio advertisements are already required to contain these short disclaimers.

The bill further specifies that disclaimers be "clear and conspicuous" – i.e. long and in large font – much like the increasingly prominent warning labels on cigarette packs. And the definition of political communications is so broad that it would include communications regarding important public policy issues that have nothing to do with elections.

The Honest Ads Act does not specifically target foreign interference because self-styled "progressives" do not view foreign influence as the only threat. They seek now – as they always have – to bring all political speech under much tighter control and restrict the free flow of ideas they disagree with.

This is exactly counter to our Founders' intent. The freedom of speech recognized in the First Amendment, after all, was not intended to be a freedom to speak to only those in earshot. It necessarily involves a right to seek an audience, even if that costs money.

The Honest Ads Act could easily muzzle someone, all right, but it won't be the Russians, or any other foreign entity. It will be the American people themselves.

This piece originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee