We are being hoodwinked by political agents at home and abroad.
And if Americans are to have a chance of knowing who is trying to fool them and how better regulation of paid political propaganda is needed.
I’m not a fan of more government regulation, but it’s clear that to return transparency and accountability to American politics and government, the law must require transparency and accountability.
Otherwise, politicians and the politically active opt for anonymity and the use of fraudulent disguises.
For example, last November a group calling itself BlackMattersUS used Facebook to organize and promote an anti-Trump rally in New York City. The protest on Nov. 12, 2016, drew between 5,000 and 10,000 people.
BlackMattersUS was really a Russian-linked group fueling discontent and division among Americans. According to an article in The Hill and reporting by Russian magazine RBC, BlackMattersUS was part of a larger Russian group that bought more than 3,000 ads on Facebook alone and operated 470 Facebook accounts designed to influence the U.S. election results.
Currently, federal law allows anyone to buy and distribute political propaganda through the internet anonymously. While federal law has long required political ads that appear on TV and radio stations, in magazines, and in newspapers to disclose who is paying for the ads, no such requirement exists for the internet.
It should. At the same time, the nation needs to beef up disclosure laws to ensure that Americans can get information about who is paying for the propaganda they see across the spectrum of media now available.
Meaning: We would get more information from those patriotic-sounding groups that send campaign mud to our homes. And we would have timely reporting of contributions to political groups and expenses made by them.
The need for better disclosure rules became apparent after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.
The 2010 ruling created a tsunami of political money. Outside spending – such as that represented by the Citizens United case – increased from about $340 million in 2008 to $1.4 billion in 2016.
These are funds collected and spent by political groups that claim they are not closely affiliated with any candidate – and therefore not subject to more stringent campaign reporting rules.
Many of the groups are tax-exempt, a shameful misuse of federal tax laws that allows special interest groups to avoid accountability, transparency and taxes. Under current law, if nonprofit groups claim their political activities are part of “membership” or “educational” efforts, they don’t have to disclose donors’ identities, but they still qualify as tax exempt. This was the controversy between tea party groups and the IRS.
Tea party groups and their counterparts on the left should not be exempt from taxes or disclosure rules. For this perversion of tax law, they can in part thank Bill Clinton and friends, who in the ‘80s misused tax laws to create and operate the Democratic Leadership Council.
The setup works perfectly for people who don’t want to be held accountable and political groups that want to mislead or sling mud. Since 1990, the percentage of political donors’ identities disclosed by nonprofits has fallen from nearly 100 percent to about 40 percent.
It’s up to Congress to improve the situation. To start, internet ads should be subject to the same rules as other media.
Just as importantly, all political contributions should be reported within 48 hours of deposit. Expenses should be reported when they are booked by a campaign or any politically active group, regardless of tax status. With today’s technology, such rules would pose no burden for any significant enterprise.
And all of it should be available online, including the identities of those who give – and those who get.
Ideally, politics on every level would be guided by such rules. But people running for local office often lack the resources to wade through books of regulations and make timely reports, while also campaigning and holding down a full-time job.
They get a pass. We shouldn’t make it more difficult for well-intentioned, engaged citizens to get involved in local government.
But we should make it easier for Americans to be informed about the people, campaigns, special interests, and foreign governments who are spending billions to shape our political opinions.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.