FEC Might Act on Russia-Linked Facebook Political Ads: Official

By Kenneth P. Doyle

The revelation that Russian sources financed political ads on Facebook in the 2016 presidential campaign could prompt enforcement action by the Federal Election Commission, agency Vice Chairwoman Caroline Hunter said.

“It’s something we can and should deal with in the enforcement process,” Hunter said Sept. 7, noting that federal campaign finance rules bar the use of foreign campaign money to influence U.S. elections. She said she couldn’t comment further on details of the Facebook matter because anything that might come before the FEC as an enforcement case is covered by strict confidentiality rules.

The details of the Facebook matter could be crucial, however, Hunter suggested. She said FEC rules exempt “pure issue speech” from coverage under campaign finance law.

Much Is Still Unknown

A Facebook blog post on the matter said the social media company was paid about $150,000 by Russia-linked sources to run thousands of ads related to the election, but most of the ads didn’t explicitly mention the candidates or call for votes. The company said it shared its findings with “U.S. authorities investigating these issues,” and would continue to work with them as necessary.

Many details about the precise sources and mechanisms for funding the Facebook ads remain unknown, and it is unclear whether the advertising strategy was coordinated with anyone involved in the U.S. presidential campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies said in a report earlier this year that they had concluded Russia sought to intervene in the presidential campaign to help elect Donald Trump but it wasn’t clear whether the Trump campaign cooperated in the effort.

Trump has denied any collusion by his campaign with the Russians and has called the ongoing investigations of the matter, including a special counsel probe led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, “a witch hunt.”

FEC’s Petersen Nominated for Judgeship

Commenting at a conference on corporate political activities, Hunter, a Republican, said that the Facebook development was unlikely to lead soon to any new FEC rules governing foreign money in U.S. elections. Democratic FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub has called for the agency to explore whether new rules are needed, but Hunter and other FEC Republicans have blocked action in that area.

Hunter said the dynamics of the frequently contentious FEC are unlikely to change any time soon and probably wouldn’t be affected by the possible departure of Republican Commissioner Matthew Petersen. Petersen was nominated Sept. 7 by Trump to be a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia; he must be confirmed by the Senate.

Hunter and Petersen came to the FEC in 2008, along with another Republican, Donald McGahn, who is now Trump’s White House counsel, and Democrat Cynthia Bauerly, who left the FEC in 2013. Following the arrival of those four commissioners, the FEC split frequently along party and ideological lines on key legal and enforcement matters.

First Amendment Concerns

Hunter made her remarks during a panel discussion at a Washington conference on corporate political activities sponsored by the Practising Law Institute. She defended the stance of the Republican commissioners on the FEC who have resisted taking tough enforcement action or supporting new campaign finance rules. Hunter said she and her GOP colleagues are concerned about protecting First Amendment rights to participate in the political process.

Hunter said FEC Republicans have been unfairly criticized by groups supporting tougher campaign finance restrictions and by the media, who accuse the commissioners of refusing to enforce the law and causing frequent deadlocked votes. She said there have not been as many deadlocks on the six-member commission as the critics allege and that the Republican commissioners are willing to enforce the law in cases in which action is warranted.

Despite its critics, Hunter said, the FEC is “humming along.” She acknowledged however, that there are key differences between FEC Democrats, who favor tougher enforcement of campaign finance laws, and the Republicans, who “take a more libertarian approach.”

Common Cause Files Complaint

Hunter addressed the Facebook matter during the PLI panel discussion in answering a question from Bloomberg BNA. She indicated the FEC would address the matter and other questions about alleged foreign spending to influence U.S. elections through the agency’s normal enforcement process, which occurs behind closed doors and can take months or years to complete.

The nonprofit group Common Cause, a frequent FEC critic that supports strong campaign finance rules, announced Sept. 7 that it is filing enforcement complaints with the FEC and the Justice Department following the reports about the Russia-linked Facebook political ads.

“Americans expect and deserve clean elections and it is long past time for the Republican commissioners on the FEC to give up their ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ posture when it comes to foreign interference in on our elections,” Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn said in a statement. “It is time for the FEC to act and to act decisively for the good of the country, instead of for the good of the party.”

Facebook Ads Under Wraps

Facebook didn’t publicly release the thousands of online messages it says it now believes were paid for by Russians, but the company has said that the “vast majority” of ads involved “didn’t specifically reference the U.S. presidential election, voting or a particular candidate.” The company’s blog post by Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, said the ads “appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum—touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

Stamos’s statement said an internal Facebook review of ads buys found approximately $100,000 in ad spending from June 2015 to May 2017 associated with roughly 3,000 ads. This ad spending was connected to about 470 “inauthentic accounts and [Facebook] Pages in violation of our policies,” Stamos said. “Our analysis suggests these accounts and Pages were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia.” Facebook doesn’t allow inauthentic accounts, and as a result, has shut down those accounts and Facebook Pages identified that were still active.

A broader search for suspect ads found an additional approximately $50,000 in potentially politically related ad spending on roughly 2,200 ads, Stamos’s statement said. These included ads bought from accounts with U.S. addresses but with the language set to Russian, even though they didn’t necessarily violate any policy or law, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.