The Honest Ads Act Won’t End Social Media Disinformation, but It’s a Start

Goodman, Ellen P.; Wajert, Lyndsey

The Honest Ads Act, introduced in the Senate in October 2017, would hold social media and other online platforms to the same political advertising transparency requirements that bind cable and broadcast systems. No longer would these platforms be able to deny that they know they are distributing foreign and other covert political ads (as part of a disinformation campaign), and no longer would the public be blind to advertiser identity. Above a certain threshold, the buyers of these ads would be exposed. However, paid political advertising is a relatively small part of the disinformation that infected the public sphere during the U.S. 2016 federal election. The Honest Ads Act will not reach organic social media posts, troll farms or — most fundamentally — the logic of social media sites which rewards outrage and bias confirmation. Moreover, it would not reach paid ads that are not considered “political”, and there is a risk that an overly broad definition would raise First Amendment problems. Even given these limits and caveats, even relatively weak disclosure regulations have proven to foster a culture of greater transparency in commercial advertising. They could do the same with online political advertising, without compromising free speech values. Normalizing social media to the standards of traditional media transparency is a reasonable place to start.