Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pouring cold water on a bipartisan effort to tighten disclosure rules for online ads, aimed at countering foreign interference in U.S. elections.
The battle comes at a time when letting voters know who’s behind the political ads they see may be more important than ever.
“I’m a little skeptical of these disclosure-type proposals that are floating around, which strikes me would mostly penalize American citizens trying to use the internet and to advertise,” McConnell, a longtime foe of efforts to limit the influence of money in politics, told MSNBC Saturday.
“This is a tough area, trying to figure out how to balance national security versus the First Amendment,” McConnell added.
The GOP Senate leader was referring to a measure introduced last month by Sen. John McCain and two Democratic senators which would require that political ads on social media disclose who’s paying for them, as TV and radio ads must do. The bill’s backers say that such a requirement might have made it harder for Russian-backed ads to gain traction on Twitter and Facebook during last year’s presidential campaign.
When it was released, the bill appeared to have some momentum behind it. But the Senate Majority Leader’s opposition is likely to make other Republicans wary of signing on.
Ensuring that people know who’s paying for the political ads they see has long been a key way to give voters the information they need to make informed political decisions. But in today’s political environment, disclosure may be even more important.
Near the end of last year’s presidential campaign, Trump campaign aides bragged that they were running ads that appeared to be from liberal or left-wing sources criticizing Hillary Clinton from the left, with the goal of dampening Democratic turnout. This type of “rat-fucking” has long been a part of campaigning, of course, but growing partisan polarization and the rise of social media seem to have increased its use. Some conservative groups appear to have used the tactic in this year’s Virginia governor’s race.
But unlike some political ads, if voters exposed to these ads actually knew who funded them, they’d likely lose much of their effectiveness, making disclosure requirements a particularly appropriate fix.
For decades, McConnell has been the GOP point man on efforts to fight off and weaken campaign finance laws. He personally acted as a plaintiff in a challenge to the 2002 McCain-Feingold soft money ban, which partially succeeding in punching holes in the law.
McConnell used to support disclosure requirements, as a way to hold off outright limits on political spending. But with many of those limits now off the table anyway thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, McConnell now generally opposes disclosure, too. In 2012, he said a disclosure bill before Congress amounted to “harassment and intimidation.”