Online Political Communications

The Landscape: Political campaigns, as well as individuals and organizations working to influence politics and policy, are increasingly pouring money into online advertising, where they can reach large audiences with less money than through ads on traditional media. With microtargeting, online advertisers can specify detailed characteristics for their target audience. As new technologies have enabled sophisticated digital political advertising, our laws and regulations have not kept up. Online political messaging is still largely exempt from federal campaign finance disclosure laws, such as regulations around issue ads and electioneering communications. For example, online ads on hot-button issues run in proximity to an election that mention a candidate without explicitly advocating for or against them are not subject to the same disclosure requirements that apply to TV, radio, or print media. 

The large gaps in disclosure and transparency rob voters of the ability to know who is trying to influence them and allow for anonymous targeting filled with disinformation and propaganda. While some digital platforms have introduced political ad databases, these tools are full of holes and fail to provide the transparency to support a healthy democracy. 

Moving Forward

Self-regulation of online political communication by technology and social media companies can’t take the place of clear government laws and regulations when it comes to protecting democracy. To start, Congress should pass the For the People Act (H.R.1/S.1), a groundbreaking democracy reform bill that would increase transparency for online political advertising. Additionally, lawmakers should require political committees to disclose spending by sub-vendors and extend the window for online political ads to be treated as “electioneering” for regulatory purposes.

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