Who should be reporting digital political ads, campaigns or social media companies?

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For years now, the California Clean Money Campaign has been fighting to limit the influence of money in California politics, particularly in the burgeoning arena of digital campaign advertising.

In 2018, for example, it successfully sponsored Assembly Bill 2188, by then-Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-San Mateo, to require social media platforms to maintain downloaded records of campaign ads. Four years later, it also sponsored the successful Senate Bill 1360, by Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Orange, to require digital political ads to reveal their top funder.

But the group lead by President and Executive Director Trent Lange recently announced its opposition to AB 868, a bill that seeks to create a publicly accessible database of online digital political ads at the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

Authored by Assemblywoman Lori Wilson, D-Suisun City, AB 868 would seem to be just the kind of proposal the California Clean Money Campaign would support. But on June 19, 2023, Lange wrote to Wilson, telling her that his organization was opposing the bill unless amended because it called for campaign committees to report their online political ads to the FPPC. Lange and company felt strongly that campaign committees, especially small committees, would be unable to report all of the variations of the ads they post on social media, creating a database that was at best incomplete.

“AB 868’s creation of a public database for online digital political advertisements would be a very important development for transparency and disclosure,” Lange wrote to the assemblywoman. “These ads are commonly fleeting; often even viewers of a particular ad cannot find it later.”

But, Lange added, having committees themselves report these ads just isn’t feasible.

“Though this could work for most types of digital ads,” he wrote, “it likely won’t work well for social media ads because many campaigns use scores of ad variations and don’t have the time, resources, or knowledge to post them individually to a database.”

Furthermore, AB 868 would have repealed a critical component of AB 2188, the requirement that social media platforms maintain a publicly accessible database of California political advertisements.

“We really didn’t want to have to go against that bill,” Lange told Capitol Weekly. “We very strongly believe in the purposes of the bill.”

It was an incredibly nuanced and technical stance for California Clean Money Campaign to take – but lucky for Lange and his team, they had a way to objectively compare social media ad disclosures by campaign committees and by social media platforms.

That’s because the Los Angeles Ethics Commission requires L.A. City Council candidate committees to submit to the commission copies of all campaign communications distributed to 200 or more people, including social media ads, in the same way proposed by AB 868. Meanwhile, Mullin’s bill from 2018, AB 2188, already requires social media companies to keep a record of all social media ads displayed on their platforms.

“We really didn’t want to have to go against that bill….We very strongly believe in the purposes of the bill.”

The California Clean Money Campaign compared the social media ads reported by L.A. City Council candidate committees in 2022 with similar ads recorded by social media platforms. What did it find? That L.A. City Council candidates failed to properly and completely report more than 90 percent of their Facebook ads to the LA Ethics Commission.

“Not a single candidate reported all the ads shown in the Facebook database,” Lange reported to Wilson in his June 19 letter.

Eight days later, Wilson amended AB 868, implementing the California Clean Money Campaign’s suggested amendment, that social media companies be the ones required to send political ads to the FPPC, not campaign committees.

Two days after that, on June 29, 2023, Lange wrote Wilson a second letter, “The California Clean Money Campaign is very pleased to not only remove our previous opposition to AB 868, but to strongly support the bill with its June 27th amendments.”

“This is definitely a story where the process worked the way it was supposed to,” Lange said. A lawmaker put forth a bill, intending to make a change. Advocates argued it could be better and presented evidence backing up their point. And the lawmaker listened.

“Now we’ve got a great bill,” he said.

Wilson’s amendment didn’t please everyone, however. TechNet, a bipartisan group of tech CEOs and senior executives, opposes the requirement that social media companies be responsible for reporting political ads.

“The responsibility for reporting about political advertisements should remain with the campaign committees that produce and pay for them, not the platforms,” Lia Nitake, deputy executive director for the Southwest for TechNet, wrote Wilson on June 30. “Not only are the committees the source of the content, but they may choose to place the same advertisement with multiple platforms. It is much more efficient for all parties involved to require the entity that is placing the advertisements to disclose that information, rather than placing that responsibility on the platform that is hosting it. Furthermore, if the purpose of the reporting requirement is to enhance transparency and promote ethical behavior, that reporting should rightly come from the committees themselves who are being monitored for engaging in potentially questionable practices.”

AB 868 now awaits action in the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

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