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State lawmakers propose banning anonymous Facebook ads

Karen DeWitt

Some Democratic lawmakers in the New York State Legislature are pushing for a measure that would make anonymous political ads on Facebook and other social media illegal. They say the ads are being abused to falsely represent their positions on issues.

Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Long Island Democrat, said there’s been a lot of publicity about Russian operatives using Facebook and other social media to influence the 2016 presidential race. But he said it’s also happening in New York races, and it needs to stop.

“It’s undermining our democracy,” Kaminsky said.

Kaminsky said he’s been the target of some of the ads, including one that said he was responsible for his home district of Long Beach losing $3 million in school aid, when in fact the opposite occurred and the school district gained money.

He said someone appears to be closely monitoring the sites and erasing any comments that try to correct the false information.

“It’s very scary, it’s very insidious,” he said.

Assemblyman James Skoufis of the Hudson Valley also has been the target of anonymous ads since late 2015. He said the ads often have innocuous-sounding names, like My Hudson Valley, Not Our Tax Dollars and I Love Bear Mountain. But he said they exist for a darker purpose — to spread what he said is “malicious and false” information. 

Skoufis said he’s tried filing complaints with the state Board of Elections, which is investigating. But he said none of the anonymous groups have registered with the Board of Elections, so the probe is limited.

Kaminsky and other lawmakers would like to impose the same disclosure requirements that exist for television ads on Facebook ads. On broadcast stations, political advertisements must clearly disclose who paid for the ads.

He said Facebook and other social media are the modern equivalent of TV and newspapers, and the ads should be subject to the same rules.

“Just let us know where these ads are coming from,” Kaminsky said.

The lawmakers said they believe Facebook and other companies know who paid for the ads, so it would not be that big a step to require the disclosure.

The measure also would cover political mailings, which also do not have to disclose sponsorship.

Kaminsky and other Democrats in the Senate say it’s particularly important that the loophole in the law be closed this year, when the 2018 races for control of the state Senate will be hotly contested.

The lawmakers recently got some support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who proposed similar legislation in his state budget plan.

Republicans, who hold the majority in the state Senate, have not yet signed on to the bill.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.