Gov. Cumo signs ad transparency bill (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)
The recent federal indictments of 12 Russians involved in the country’s interference campaign in the 2016 United States presidential election comes at a time of already heightened interest in election security given other previously known facts and allegations about Russian meddling in the election, the promulgation of “fake news,” attempted hacking of state elections systems, and questionable practices by social media platforms like Facebook. Though election security and integrity at the federal level has dominated people’s attention, it is also an issue at the state and local levels.
For the past two years, policymakers, security companies, and members of the tech and media industries have engaged in more fulsome debate over how to combat issues like “fake news” -- meaning fabricated news stories pushed off as actual news -- and false or misleading ads on social media, not to mention ensuring the security of election infrastructure.
In April, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill, passed in a new state budget agreement that prohibits foreign entities from buying political ads “in order to influence New York elections,” requires political ad buyers on social media to register as independent expenditure committees, requires independent expenditure ads to clearly display that the independent spender, not a candidate, paid for the ad, and requires the state Board of Elections to “create an online archive of all political communications for a set period.”
Some say that while these are important measures, there is more to do to secure New York elections, both in terms of hardening security systems to prevent hacking and reducing the influence of malicious actors in other, “softer” ways. Facebook itself, while the subject of much scrutiny and criticism during and after the 2016 election, is making some reforms to the ways it does business. On Tuesday, a representative for the social media giant called the New York political ad transparency law a model for the rest of the country, while also pointing toward transparency into voter targeting on the platform as a next frontier.
During a panel discussion at City & State NY’s “Protecting NY Summit,” moderated by Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max, Eva Guidarini of Facebook said the company is encouraging users to report questionable content, has begun working with “third party fact-checkers” when potential fake news is flagged, and, if determined to be fake news, posts will receive a tag noting it as such, and be “down-ranked,” meaning it will show up less frequently in people’s feeds, while an explanation of the fact-checking will also be provided. She defended the practice of not removing content unless it is deemed “misinformation,” saying that there can be too many gray areas in defining misleading content. Misinformation would include things like fake news.
Facebook’s actions come after widespread criticism of its platform as a venue for the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories, as well as inappropriate user-data sharing.
Guidarini, a member of the U.S. Politics and Government Outreach team for the company, said Facebook should be the subject of government regulations, but indicated there is a line to ensure that the platform still serves its users. When asked, she also indicated that users must take some responsibility for evaluating content, and said the company is working to help educate people. She also praised the new New York law that applies to Facebook and other online services, which was sponsored in the state Senate by another panelist, Senator Todd Kaminsky.
“We worked really closely with New York and Maryland,” Guidarini said. “We’re really excited about these ad transparency laws that you passed, and we’re now sort of rolling that out to the whole country even though it’s only law in a couple of states. We think that that’s important. The law lagged behind, right? It’s ridiculous that you didn’t have to say who’s paying for a political ad online, even though you did on TV and in newspapers. And we should change that.”
The panel on election integrity included Guidarini; Kaminsky; state Senator Liz Krueger; Assemblymember David Buchwald; Michael Ryan, the executive director of the New York City Board of Elections; and Eric Hodge of CyberScout Solutions, a company that works with government to prevent hacking and other security breaches.
Ryan said that the BOE’s concern has moved from tampering with results towards the manipulation of social media to alter election results.
“We were concerned in the lead-up to election day that people would put out false information that poll sites were on fire or that no voting is happening at particular locations,” Ryan said. “Real misinformation causing chaos as opposed to manipulation of results.”
Sen. Kaminsky, a Democrat representing parts of Long Island, said that he combatted fake news himself in his 2016 election campaign, which led to an extremely close race where one was not expected. He said that the events made him prioritize publicizing the issue as being a state and local issue, not just one related to Donald Trump and Russia.
“There would be a Facebook group that would pop up in someone’s feed called Long Islanders for Clean Drinking Water,” Kaminsky said. “They would then have an ad saying ‘last year, Todd Kaminsky voted to deprive Long Island of $10 million of clean drinking water. And if you liked it, all your friends would see it, it would go up to their feeds. And if you commented on it, all your friends would see it. If you commented something like, ‘this is not true,’ your comment would be removed in, like, ten minutes.”
Kaminsky said that the law passed as part of the budget was a major focus for him in the previous two years. He also criticized the press, claiming that members of the media ran with the Facebook posts without fact-checking them. He said that there are not enough ameliorative pathways for combatting false political information, such as mailers claiming support for Kaminsky from “undocumented aliens” or Mayor Bill de Blasio. The former prosecutor indicated that there is not enough punishment for bad actors, but that his new law would at least change that for those that may try to anonymously post political advertising on social media.
Asked about next steps in regulating social media platforms, Guidarini of Facebook said that, while microtargeted ads are a powerful tool, that “voters should know if the African-American community is receiving a totally different message, or the Hispanic community is receiving a totally different message from the white community from a specific candidate.”