Speed Reads

whoops

Most of the political ads on Facebook are likely breaking the law

You know that phrase you start to hear all the time on TV in the fall, something like "I'm Angus and I approve this message" or "This ad was paid for by Canines for a Better America?" The Federal Election Commission clarified in an opinion in December that such a disclaimer needs to be visible on ads on websites like Facebook too — only it doesn't seem like anyone is actually obeying. A ProPublica investigation found that of 300 political ads that have run on Facebook, fewer than 40 actually met the FEC's disclaimer laws.

Ads lacking the proper FEC language include ones paid for by the Democratic National Committee and President Trump's 2020 campaign. Fines for "knowing and willful" violations of the law can be over $1,000.

The regulations are under particular scrutiny now, as it has become increasingly clear that Russian agents used Facebook to promote their agenda during the 2016 election. "Foreign contributions to campaigns for U.S. federal office are illegal," ProPublica notes. "Online, advertisers can target ads to relatively small groups of people. Once the marketing campaign is over, the ads disappear. This makes it difficult for the public to scrutinize them."

The FEC's rules have changed as the nature of online advertising has, too. In 2011, when ads on Facebook were limited to small thumbnails and short text, the FEC agreed that the disclaimer could appear after clicking through the ad. "The functionality and capabilities of today's Facebook Video and Image ads can accommodate the information without the same constrictions imposed by the character-limited ads that Facebook presented to the Commission in 2011," the commission wrote in December.

Read more about the law, and who is and is not complying with it, at ProPublica.