Dr. Young Mie Kim, a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, testified in front of the Federal Elections Commission at a public hearing on June 27 in Washington, D.C. about her research for the FEC’s rulemaking on online political advertisements. The public hearing was held to discuss potential internet disclaimers as well as the definition of public communication as it related to campaign finance law. Kim’s testimony supported moves towards transparency in political campaigns and online through social media channels such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
“The government’s mandate on disclaimers is justified by the Court, as they help voters make a fully informed decision. The FEC’s provision of consistent guidelines for online disclaimers has been certainly long overdue,” Kim said.
Kim, the principal investigator of her interdisciplinary research project, Project DATA (Digital Advertising Tracking & Analysis) recently published the first of its kind article in an academic journal, Political Communication, entitled The Stealth Media? Groups and Targets of Divisive Issue Campaigns on Facebook. Her research uncovered that anonymous groups who did not file a report to the FEC ran most of political advertisements on Facebook. More than half of the groups reported by Project DATA were “suspicious groups,” that is, unidentifiable, untraceable groups who did not have any public footprints. About 20 percent of those suspicious groups later turned out to be Kremlin-linked Russian groups. The research also evidenced that anonymous groups targeted social media users in key states including Wisconsin ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Her research also found that when disclaimers were not required, only 45 percent of the groups revealed their group names on their ads. Only three out of 1,083 candidate committees in the 2016 election placed a full disclaimer, “paid for by” information with groups’ full names registered with the FEC.
Since 2011, digital platforms have been exempt from the disclaimer rules that are applied to broadcast media. Facebook and Google claimed that online ads were too small to include disclaimers. Since foreign interference with elections has come to light, however, the FEC has faced considerable public pressure to respond. The FEC’s new rulemaking considers the requirement for “paid for by” disclaimers for digital political advertisers to disclose the groups behind ads that appear elsewhere in print or on television. However, those who are against such regulations argue that online disclaimers would put extra burden on speakers (advertisers and platforms) and advocate for platforms to self-regulate. Platforms would put an indicator on the face of ads, instead of “paid for by” disclaimers, so that if voters want to find out who is behind the ads, they can click through linked pages.
In her opening statement at the FEC’s testimony, Kim emphasized, “Voters are overloaded with floods of information. My research indicates that an individual voter received average 34 ad impressions per day during the 2016 campaigns. In the case of digital advertising, voters are overburdened, not speakers.” She argued that demanding voters to investigate who is behind a political ad beyond the face of the ads is not only unrealistic, but unfair to voters.
Over the past six months, Kim was also invited to several Hill briefings for both the Senate and House to discuss policy solutions for foreign interference with elections.