New bill would prohibit anonymous political ads on social media

Senator Todd Kaminsky, at podium, is joined by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Senators Michael Gianaris, John E. Brooks and Leroy Comrie Tuesday to announce legislation (S.6896) that would prevent anonymous and false political attack ads on social media.

Following the lead of Facebook, the federal government and other states, Senate Democrats introduced a bill that would require sponsors of social media-based political ads in New York state to identify themselves.

Last month, Facebook disclosed to federal investigators that it sold $100,000 worth of advertising to a buyer connected with the Russian government in an attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election.

In New York, Facebook-sponsored ads by fake groups with names such as “NYS Public Schools” or “Stop the Corruption in Albany Now” have targeted voters to mislead them with attack-style campaigns.

Facebook has recently committed to stricter and more thorough reviews of political ads, requirements that the purchasers of ads be identified, and a more general effort to prevent “fake news.”

But Senate Democrats want to pass a new law for New York that would ensure online political ads are published transparently and hold the author accountable for the content.

“False, misleading, and anonymous advertisements mislead voters and harm our democracy — and it must end immediately,” said Senator Todd Kaminsky, a former federal prosecutor who wrote the bill after he was slandered by an anonymous source during his most recent Senate campaign.

“Not another political ad should run on social media without voters knowing exactly who paid for it.”

During his Senate campaign in 2016, “a continuous stream of anonymous, extremely misleading and downright false ads” attacking his credibility ran on Facebook, Kaminsky told Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a letter dated October 3.

“Some of these ads asserted I had the opposite position on important issues than actually I do. Some claimed that I had done things which I have not.”

One organization calling itself “NYS Public Schools” made inaccurate claims about school budgets in Long Beach in Kaminsky’s district. When the Long Beach school district was experiencing a $2 million increase in budget funds, the ad claimed the exact opposite, Kaminsky recalls.

“This ad would make a regular user of the Internet think that it’s coming from the New York state public schools or from some established group with credibility, when no such group exists,” Kaminsky said.

Kaminsky’s bill, S.6896, which is sitting in the Senate Rules Committee, would extend political campaign laws to include digital platforms, like Facebook and other social media.

Political affiliates would no longer be permitted to use anonymous attacks. All related materials would include a “paid for by” identifier, under the proposed law.

The current definition for political communication would be expanded to capture communications that may not reference a candidate but nonetheless include key terms such as “vote,” “oppose,” “support,” “elect,” “defeat” or “reject” in the ad itself. The bill also specifically adds digital communications to the list of those political communications covered in current law.

Failure to identify contributing participants would result in a penalty of up to $1,000 per violation.

“Our citizens on Long Island and across our state have been bombarded by false, anonymous ads, ads that distort the truth, and that are the worst of our politics, and that are certainly not what a healthy democracy is based upon,” Kaminsky said. “They have plagued elections that I’ve run, and many others as well.”

At a press conference in Long Beach on Tuesday, Kaminsky was joined by Sens. Michael Gianaris, D-Queens; John Brooks, D-Massapequa; Leroy Comrie, D-St. Albans; and Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, who spoke in support of Kaminsky’s new legislation.

“Senator Kaminsky’s legislation will help combat slanderous ads by making digital ads come under the same regulations as broadcast and print media,” Stewart-Cousins said. “In this era of fake news and malicious campaign attacks, protecting the integrity of our campaign process really matters.”

In his letter, Kaminsky thanked Zuckerberg for adopting a more responsible policy on political ads but added that he expects Facebook to respond “swiftly and accordingly” when these types of ads “inevitably pop up again.”