Tech

Russian Trolls Would Love the 'Honest Ads Act'

Instead of forcing digital platforms to identify posters and advertisers, senators propose a useless database.

Two senators and one bad idea.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Honest Ads Act, introduced on Thursday by Senators Mark Warner, Amy Klobuchar and John McCain to regulate political advertising on social networks and on the internet in general, would increase the regulatory burden on companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google. But it wouldn't stop Russian troll farms or any other foreign actors from continuing to use them to push politicized messages to U.S. audiences. Totally different measures would be necessary if that were indeed the goal.

Broadly, what the act does is expand the definition of "electioneering communications" to cover not just traditional media like print publications, television, radio and direct mail, but also all public forms of digital communication. The idea is to make online platforms store all the political ads -- both those that support specific candidates and those dealing with issues of national importance -- so that the public could access them and see how they were targeted. Another proposal is to mark the ads clearly with the advertiser's name. The platforms are called on to "make reasonable efforts" to ensure the ads are "not purchased by a foreign national, directly or indirectly."

As some critics immediately noted, keeping an archive of every promoted tweet or Facebook post so that the public could peruse them would be a mammoth task. Communication researchers, of course, would be grateful to legislators for such a generous gift, but the companies would face lots of extra work without really advancing the legislation's primary goal -- to make political advertising on digital platforms more transparent.

It's difficult to imagine Joe Public digging through this vast archive of at least tens of thousands of messages, analyzing targeting patterns. Perhaps it's not the public but the government that needs access to the data -- in which case, it's worth remembering that legitimate partisan advertisers don't necessarily want their marketing tactics known to a hostile administration.

But that's not the biggest problem with the Honest Ads Act. Any such superficial regulation only helps malicious actors, such as Russian troll farm owners, to structure their work in a way that no rules are formally violated.

RBC Magazine, a Russian business publication, recently published a thorough investigation of the U.S. election-related exploits of Russia's best-known troll farm -- the outfit based at 55 Ulitsa Savushkina in St. Petersburg and reportedly owned by Kremlin-connected businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. It ran at least 120 social network communities in the U.S., including large ones like TEN_GOP, whose messages were frequently retweeted by Trump campaign members, and BlackMattersUS, which succeeded in organizing a number of real-life events. It's often referred to as the Internet Research Agency; it was its activities that Facebook flagged to U.S. investigators of Russian meddling. The investigation documents a history of circumventing obstacles put up by the social networks. All of the factory's communities and accounts on Facebook were closed in June 2015, after the New York Times first wrote about the outfit -- but the trolling operation was soon up and running again.

"When Facebook blocks the trolls' accounts, the organization's IT department buys proxy servers, issues new IP addresses and virtual machines and work starts afresh," RBC Magazine writes, quoting an ex-employee of the troll factory. "New SIM cards and cloud phone numbers are also acquired, new accounts are opened to make payments, and sometimes ID packages are acquired to open accounts."

Last year, trolls often were sloppy, registering accounts using Russian phone numbers, using Russian IP addresses and paying for ads in rubles. These slips apparently led Facebook to some of the accounts, and a deeper investigation soon turned up others. After all the unwanted attention, the Savushkina factory won't make the same mistakes again.

There's still no problem with acquiring as many U.S. SIM cards as necessary (a matter of sending an employee to drive around electronics stores in the U.S.), setting up U.S.-based servers and working through virtual private networks. Paying from the U.S. is somewhat more labor-intensive but not impossible; in most cases, for basic obfuscation, PayPal should work. As for ID, if it's ever required, Facebook has a long list of acceptable identification methods; you can send it electronic copies of a store loyalty card and a piece of mail.

Twitter, unlike Facebook, officially allows multiple accounts for one person and pseudonyms. So it's even easier for the trolls to use.

So, under the Honest Ads Act, a troll cleverly disguised as Jane Doe or John Smith, and ostensibly based in Random Location on Google Maps, U.S.A., will still be able to buy and run any kind of political ad -- all from the outskirts of St. Petersburg. The transaction will be clearly recorded under the fake name and stored in a vast archive in which no one but a dedicated investigator will be able to find anything of value.

The trolls will also gleefully use the bill's "news exemption," which covers anything, appearing anywhere except political parties' and candidates' own media, that looks like a news story or an editorial. Expect "news" outlets owned by Jane Doe and John Smith (of the Internet Research Agency, but let's not mention that) to spring up. The troll farm already owns dozens of Russian "news" outlets, after all.

And of course, expect an increasingly adroit troll army to keep going for the organic promotion of their content. These guys are good at social media marketing without any budget except for their salaries. The content retweeted by the Trump team was not promoted for money. The memes the Savushkina outfit made for Imgur spread because their target audience loved them.

The three senators' proposal will now be seriously discussed, kicked around by lobbyists and the media, watered down slightly to protect the freedom of speech and, if it's adopted, passed off as a necessary response to Russian meddling that doesn't stifle digital innovation. But it misses the point completely. The only way to prevent the abuse of digital platforms is to make them introduce tough identification rules and cut off anonymous and semi-anonymous payment methods for advertisers. When the platforms are recognized as publishers, it should become impossible to broadcast content anonymously, without the author's true, verified identity being known at least to the platforms themselves; it should also be impossible to buy an ad in the U.S. without a U.S. bank account.

Meanwhile, there's every reason for trolls to be grateful to Warner, Klobuchar and McCain. They're creating the semblance of a regulatory effort that does nothing to stop the factories from continuing their experiments with the U.S. psyche.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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