‘Depressing and demoralizing:’ No state, federal action taken to combat foreign election interference despite UW research

MADISON, Wis. — For years, social media giants and the U.S. government have known about Russian efforts to influence Americans’ choices on Election Day, but so far very little has been done to stop it.

Before the 2016 election, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and researcher Young Mie Kim analyzed millions of political ads, leading her to find evidence of Kremlin-linked groups placing divisive political ads on social media in order to further divide Americans and keep them home during elections. Kim has found anecdotal evidence of similar political ads ahead of the 2020 election.

“Public education and media literacy is very important,” Kim said. “However that alone is not going to solve that problem. There must be some multilevel solutions.”

Since her research, no federal regulation has been passed to try and prevent this interference from happening again, though a bipartisan bill waits to get a committee hearing in both the U.S. House and Senate.

The bill, dubbed the “Honest Ads Act,” was introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota. It would expand the disclosure requirements of who paid for an ad, currently mandated in political advertising on TV, to digital ads. Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Green Bay, and former Rep. Sean Duffy signed on to the House companion bill as cosponsors. Neither Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, nor Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, have signed onto the Senate bill.

Some states – including Vermont, Washington and Wyoming – have enacted similar legislation into state law. News 3 Now reached out to Sens. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, and Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, the leadership in the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Government Operations, Technology and Consumer Protection, to see if they would consider pursuing similar legislation. They did not respond.

In private industry, some tech companies have tried, such as Facebook putting in new transparency policies and a digital ad library, but Kim said it is challenging.

“It would be very difficult,” she said. “And this blurry distinction between foreign and domestic groups poses a lot of challenges to tech platforms.”

Even with the controls Facebook has put in place, the groups are finding ways around. On Twitter, where political ads are banned, the misinformation can still spread.

“Advertising is not the only way these malicious actors use as a manipulation tool,” Kim said. “So withdrawing advertising all together is not going to fix the problem.”

Kim emphasized an approach that includes government policy changes, private industry transparency measures and general public media literacy is the best way to combat the foreign groups’ influence. The fact no significant changes happened on the first two despite her research she said was “depressing and demoralizing.”

“There’s a systematic election interference operation,” Kim said. “We evidenced that, but there’s nothing we could do.”