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Oct. 20, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

The Honest Ads Act would force Internet companies to change their disclosure practices by January 2018

Plus: A former Russian troll speaks out; a definition of disinformation; Wikitribune’s preferred news sources.

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

A bill to make Internet companies reveal who is paying for ads. U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mark Warner (D-VA), and John McCain (R-AZ) on Thursday announced the Honest Ads Act, which aims to increase the transparency of online political ads by forcing Internet companies to disclose who’s buying them. The full text of the bill is here. The Verge’s Colin Lecher explains:

The new bill, called the Honest Ads Act, would require companies like Facebook and Google to keep copies of political ads and make them publicly available. Under the act, the companies would also be required to release information on who those ads were targeted to, as well as information on the buyer and the rates charged for the ads. The new rules would bring disclosure rules more in line with how political ads are regulated in mediums like print and TV, and apply to any platform with more than 50 million monthly viewers. The companies would be required to keep and release data on anyone spending more than $500 on political ads in a year.

Surprise: Tech companies and political advertisers aren’t super excited. The New York Times’ Kenneth P. Vogel and Cecilia Kang run down how tech companies are “mobilizing an army of lobbyists and lawyers — including a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s campaign — to help shape proposed regulations.”

Axios’s Sara Fischer talked to ad buyers about concerns over privacy, loopholes, and bots:

“This is over-reaching and includes targeting information not supplied by broadcast or cable buyers,” says Jaime Bowers, a consultant who has managed ad buying for dozens of ad campaigns for Republican candidates and advocacy groups. “Digital ads are bought in a variety of different ways, and views on social are proprietary because so much goes into what you pay for a view. Targeting is highly specialized and proprietary for the agency, campaign and pollsters.”

If you’d like to get deeper into campaign finance disclosure, this paper by Hamsini Sridharan of political reform nonprofit MapLight and Ann Ravel, former Chair of the Federal Election Commission, “outlines a brief history of campaign finance disclosure in relation to the internet; examines trends in political advertising and campaigning online; and explains why additional regulation is necessary to ensure transparency for political spending online while promoting democratic speech.”

“Our task was to set Americans against their own government.” Meduza, the Latvia-based Russian news outlet that recently partnered with BuzzFeed to do investigative Russia stories, writes about an interview conducted by the Russian independent news network Dozhd with a man who says he worked for Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), “the ‘troll factory’ responsible for buying ads on social media and polluting American online news discussion in an apparent effort to destabilize U.S. democracy,'” between 2014 and 2015 (before Donald Trump even announced his candidacy).

Max says that IRA staff were tasked with monitoring tens of thousands of comments on major U.S. media outlets, in order to grasp the general trends of American Internet users. Once employees got a sense of what Americans naturally discussed in comment forums and on social media, their job was to incite them further and try to ‘rock the boat.’

According to Max, the Internet Research Agency’s foreign desk was prohibited from promoting anything about Russia or Putin. One thing the staff learned quickly was that Americans don’t normally talk about Russia: ‘They don’t really care about it,’ Max told Dozhd. ‘Our goal wasn’t to turn the Americans toward Russia,’ he claims. ‘Our task was to set Americans against their own government: to provoke unrest and discontent, and to lower Obama’s support ratings.’…

A separate ‘Analytics desk’ would supposedly supply his department with Excel files containing hyperlinks to news stories and short summaries of how to comment on these articles, in order to incite American Internet users and derail political discussions.

Defining “disinformation.” A brief from the nonprofit National Endowment for Democracy delves into what disinformation is, especially in light of Russian activities.

Analysts generally agree that disinformation is always purposeful and not necessarily composed of outright lies or fabrications. It can be composed of mostly true facts, stripped of context or blended with falsehoods to support the intended message, and is always part of a larger plan or agenda. In the Russian context, observers have described its use to pursue Moscow’s foreign policy goals through a “4D” offensive: dismiss an opponent’s claims or allegations, distort events to serve political purposes, distract from one’s own activities, and dismay those who might otherwise oppose one’s goals.

Take that, New York Times. WikiTribune, the crowdfunded news platform from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, posted its “list of preferred news sources.” At the top are three “preferred news sources,” “which do not require specific attribution beyond the hyperlink to the original source”: The AP, Reuters, and The BBC. The B-grade news sources — which “we’re comfortable linking to for hard news but which require attribution in addition to the hyperlink” — are The New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Axios, Quartz, BuzzFeed Investigations, The New Yorker, The Guardian, Politico, Bloomberg, and Nature. WikiTribune says it will expand the list over time.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Oct. 20, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
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