Facebook and Congress are messing up local elections

Last week Facebook announced new requirements for running advertisements on their platform ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Facebook caused headaches and confusion in 2018 when it required people and organizations wanting to run political, election, and social issue-focused ads prior to Election Day to register and provide detailed information to the company. Now even more information will be required, and more types of ads will fall under the “politics, elections, and social issues” ad group. If people or groups fail to provide the additional information to Facebook by mid-October, the company will pause advertisements from said individuals and groups.

These additional requirements are aimed at the presidential and other federal elections next year. But states with off-year elections like Louisiana, already well in the swing of major statewide and legislative campaigns, are in for a shock.

Louisiana will not only vote in a gubernatorial election this fall, but about a third of the state’s lawmakers are term limited, meaning a massive turnover in both chambers of the legislature.

With the primary little more than a month away, candidates are frantically working to get their faces and messages in front of potential voters, particularly given the many non-incumbent candidates running this cycle. Likewise, non-profit groups are using the election to speak about key issues affecting the state, including everything from taxes to criminal justice reform.

Candidates for smaller offices and lesser-funded non-profits rely heavily on cost-effective digital technologies, such as Facebook, to get their message to the people of Louisiana. Nothing will ever replace the classic door knock, but digital technologies have allowed candidates to connect to countless potential voters at a fraction of the cost of traditional media. Given the shoestring budgets many state and local campaigns run on, digital technologies are crucial to spreading a message.

Facebook’s new requirements will once again raise the time and monetary cost of spreading a message. Even worse, if people miss these requirements, they may be silenced at a time when they need the platform most.

These requirements weren’t added simply to cause headaches for small-time campaigns. They are a result of a pressure campaign from Washington and state governments to prevent foreign election meddling, stemming from the $100,000 in online ads purchased by Russian actors during the 2016 presidential election. Concerns over this attempted interference are certainly reasonable, but the proposed response is far out of proportion to the actual threat. Russian money accounted for less than 0.01% of the 2016 presidential election’s digital spend. States have so far reported no attempts of foreign agents purchasing similar ads around state elections or issues.

The biggest pressure point is the Honest Ads Act, written by Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. This legislation goes further in burdening speakers than the current Facebook changes do. It would stop many speakers from being able to use these technologies to get out their message altogether. Ironically, prevention of speaking about the issues has been done in a so-called effort to protect democracy.

While the federal legislation stalled in the Senate after passing the House, there have been state models based off the Honest Ads Act which have become law. Both Washington and Maryland have passed their own versions of the Honest Ads Act, however, this legislation hasn’t resulted in increased transparency and voter awareness of the candidates and issues, as promised by proponents. Instead, the exact opposite has happened.

Large tech companies such as Google and Facebook have found the requirements so burdensome that they have simply stopped running political advertisements completely. Not only does this inflict damage to the democratic process, it adds overly complex legal requirements that prevent new entrants from entering the digital advertising space.

We shouldn’t be surprised that both the government solution and actions of private companies are most likely to burden small speakers in states. Those in Washington or Silicon Valley often have large budgets, staff, and legal teams that insulate them from the damaging effects of more rules and regulations. Facebook, to its credit, understands from its own experience that smaller groups have a difficult time complying and is trying to find less burdensome ways for these speakers to comply with the new rules.

Unfortunately, those in Louisiana who want to speak to their neighbors about the issues affecting their community don’t have the same resources to remain in compliance with the laws or rule changes. As a result, they will be silenced.

Louisiana is currently deciding its future and selecting leaders that will impact critical policy areas. To make informed decisions requires that candidates, citizens, and non-profit groups alike have the ability to speak to their friends and neighbors on these issues.

Those of us in the Bayou have a message to Facebook and those in the D.C. Swamp: Stop trying to meddle in our elections.

Eric Peterson (@Eric_Peterson_) is director of policy at the Pelican Institute for Public Policy in Louisiana.

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