Illinois lawmakers propose bill to regulate political ads on social media
November 1, 2017

Illinois lawmakers propose bill to regulate political ads on social media

A new bill would require buyers of political and issue ads on social media to disclose their identities and would impose record-keeping requirements on social media companies.

State Sens. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, and Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, are co-sponsoring a bill to require political committees that pay for certain political and issue communications on social media platforms to identify themselves as having paid for the ads.

Senate Bill 2251, filed Oct. 25, would amend Illinois’ Election Code to add certain paid communications on social media platforms to the list of communiqués that require the identification of the political committees that pay for them. In addition to social media communications, the list includes pamphlets, circulars, handbills, internet or telephone communications, and radio, TV or print ads “directed at voters and mentioning the name of a candidate in the next upcoming election.”

The law applies to actions taken by “political committees,” which, under the Election Code include: “a candidate political committee, a political party committee, a political action committee, a ballot initiative committee, and an independent expenditure committee.” Any political committee that pays for “any part of the communication, including, but not limited to, its preparation and distribution,” must be “identified clearly within the communication as the payor.”

Moreover, the bill requires any vendor or other person who provides the services to keep a record of the name and address of the group that purchased the ad, as well as the amount paid. Records of the transaction must be kept for one year after payment is received.

SB 2251’s disclosure requirements also apply to paid communications on social media platforms “directed at voters and (i) mentioning the name of a candidate in the next upcoming election, without that candidate’s permission, or (ii) advocating for or against a public policy position.”

Silverstein defended the measure in a press release, noting that “[s]ocial media is immediate and far-reaching … [and] [v]oters deserve to know what organizations are behind all political ads.”

Lawmakers should be aware that social media companies are already taking steps to increase transparency and regulate the use of ads on their platforms.

Facebook has announced new measures to guard against unknown parties placing ads on its site. Starting in November, Facebook will require all ads – not just political ads – to be associated with a page on its site. (A Facebook “page” is an online profile for public figures, businesses, organizations and other entities and is visible to the public.) A person will be able to view all the ads a page is running on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger, regardless of whether the person is in the intended audience for the ad.

Facebook plans to test the process in Canada and roll it out to other countries and the U.S. by summer 2018, ahead of the U.S. midterm elections in November. Ultimately, the company plans to require political advertisers to verify their identity, starting with U.S. federal elections and expanding to other jurisdictions and countries. Facebook will require these political advertisers to identify themselves through a “paid for by” line in their ads; clicking on the disclosures will reveal more information about the advertiser.

Twitter has also announced plans to include more information about political ad buyers, according to Reuters. “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,” Bruce Falck, Twitter’s general manager of revenue product, said in a blog post reported by Reuters.

Social media companies themselves are already instituting more effective political ad disclosure requirements in response to the concerns of federal lawmakers and the desires of social media users. It’s possible new regulatory burdens imposed by the Illinois General Assembly will only increase costs and compliance hassles, without adding much in the way of valuable election protections.

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