Senators Klobuchar, Warner and McCain have endorsed the Honest Advertising Act (HAA) to address advertising practices in digital social media that currently allow foreign interference in our elections. Indeed, it appears that Russia used trolls to attack the character of some election candidates, to spread “fake news,” and to foment social divisiveness on some issues. We applaud the Senators’ sentiment, but question whether their proposal will protect the election process from interference.
HAA calls upon operators of digital social media to keep records of the payor and the content in each political advert. Unfortunately, the HAA prescription for documenting source and payment for political adverts is too easy for foreign meddlers to subvert, and it omits an even more important aspect – whether the claims in an advert are considered truthful by honest umpires.
A political advert is one that “supports specific candidates [or] deals with issues of national importance.” There are many legitimate American commenters and some of us want to publish our assessment, especially on social and economic issues.
Foreign trolls also have agendas and despite a well-implemented HAA, they can find ways to pay for adverts using appropriate payment methods, present false but convincing identities, and send advert and email communications from servers that appear to be legitimately based in the US and operated by Americans with political opinions. A person with Russian experience in the troll business says totally different measures than HAA suggests would be necessary to block foreign trolls.
Even before the 2016 election cycle, the American public was bothered by doubtful political claims carried on the internet. An occasional exaggeration or mistruth may be the norm during an election, but some people were so annoyed by the drivel and lies that they launched sites such as Factcheck, Snopes, and PolitiFact. PolitiFact’s editor explained the site’s mission of highlighting truth in an article: “All Politicians Lie. Some Lie More Than Others.”
Aside from scoring for truth by Factcheck, Snopes and PolitiFact, major newspapers sometimes try to validate claims made in a chosen major speech or in a tweet. Some patently partisan newspapers target their political nemesis with selective and very aggressive “fact checking.” If there were more systematic and comprehensive selection of political speeches and adverts, and non-partisan scoring for the truth within, fact checking would supply the missing core ingredient missing for the HAA proposal. The result would be a database of speeches where for each advert or speech, data on sponsorship, payor and an assessment of truth is included.
A public assessment of the level of truth in an advert or speech would give the public an advantage and it would flag mistruths – thereby undermining foreign trolls’ success in attracting the public’s interest in their election-time fake news and character assassinations.