John McCain is backing a digital transparency bill that probably would've gotten his 2008 campaign in trouble

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John McCain REUTERS/Charles Mostoller U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) speaks after being awarded the 2017 Liberty Medal by former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (unseen) at the Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 16, 2017.

  • A new bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain promises to bring full transparency to digital political ads. But that won't be easy, argues veteran journalist Kate Kaye.
  • Kaye, author of the 2009 book, "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," says that McCain's 2008 campaign went out of its way to disclose as little as possible about its web ads.
  • By nature, political ads are messy and often designed to stoke fears.

Honest Ads aren't what anybody expects in politics, but that's what a new bipartisan bill by the same name promises by requiring digital platforms to provide detailed public information about political advertising.

In the midst of ongoing investigations into ad-supported Russian sabotage during the 2016 election, Democrats Mark Warner of Virginia and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, along with Republican John McCain, co-sponsored the Honest Ads Act, which would require Facebook, Google and lesser-known digital media firms and ad platforms to make digital display ad creative, video ads, sponsored content, and search ads public, providing details about how the messages were targeted and how much they cost.

If the Honest Ads Act is all it's cracked up to be, anyone who wants insight into how political candidates use paid digital media to disseminate messages would have a comprehensive repository of campaign ad information. The reporter in me loves this.

The idea seems to be that if political advertisers and their digital messaging tactics are exposed, they'll be honest. Or maybe the idea is that by reporting all this information, digital media entities will be held more accountable for all the surreptitious activity they allow to take place on their watch.

But talk about casting a wide net: in addition to ads made by or on behalf of a candidate, the legislation calls for digital ad sellers to report any ads related to "a national legislative issue of public importance." It also calls on the Federal Election Commission overseeing this whole process to figure out how to establish accountability for "political advertisements distributed online for free" -- or in digital industry parlance, organic messages.

Apparently, this is how the law would prevent what happened in 2016, by sweeping up anything related to elections or political issues that anybody promotes in ad form, even meddlers posing as everyday Americans creating fake non-political user accounts to disseminate salacious news items.

It's all a bit ironic to me, because in my experience over the years trying to piece together what political campaigns were doing online, Senator McCain's campaigns and others haven't been exactly forthcoming when it came to divulging information about their digital advertising.

McCain's Own Transparency Challenges

Let me explain. Back in 2008, online political advertising was finally getting recognized as a legitimate factor in elections. It was Barack Obama's campaign that generated most of the media hype around the use of digital platforms, but his GOP rival John McCain was also working with experienced digital ad consultants.

As a reporter who had covered digital political advertising since its nascence in 2002, there were, as is still the case, no rules for digital political ads like the ones requiring television stations to report political TV ads. FEC reports were among my primary sources for signals about what political campaigns did online and where they spent.

Obama's 2008 campaign reported details of spending with specific ad networks and digital media firms to the FEC, but in contrast, the McCain campaign practiced near-opacity, revealing as little as possible about where its online ad dollars went. In fact, its reports to the agency were so cryptic, the campaign only reported online ad-related spending in bulk expenditures categorized discreetly as "media" with a company listed only as "CD INC." Without knowing through reporting and sourcing that CD INC was indeed Republican digital consultancy Connell Donatelli, I'd have had zero insight into what the campaign was spending online.

Fomenting Fear Is Part of the Political Playbook

The Russian fake news farms that inspired the Honest Ads Act pushed out a lot of phony news and commentary to foment a variety of ideas intended to influence people to support President Trump, such as anti-immigrant sentiment.

But even upstanding campaigners such as Senator McCain have been associated with distributing arguably unsavory digital messages. During the 2008 election, I reported that McCain's campaign used ad networks to splatter the web with anti-Obama ads, including messages targeting Jewish voters that pictured Obama alongside then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, asking, "Is It OK to Meet Unconditionally with Anti-American Foreign Leaders?"

image1 John McCain 2008 These ads ran in 2008 for Rep. candidate John McCain

Though the ads made note in small print that they were paid for by the McCain campaign (the new bill could require more prominent disclosure), they were clearly not about McCain. Rather, they were intended to stir concern among a select group of voters about Obama's trustworthiness in relation to Iran -- and by extension Israel. Stirring uncertainty and fear among voters is one of the oldest tactics in the political campaign playbook. There's a reason those pesky Russian ad meddlers employed a similar approach in their messaging on Facebook and other sites.

Let's be clear - I'm not trying to "out" McCain. His campaign's approach to FEC reporting and ad messaging was not much different from that of many political campaigns I've observed over the years. And remember, shady scaremongering has been a specialty of political direct mail for decades.

unnamed 3 McCain 2008 Campaign This ad juxtaposed Obama with Castro

Logistical Nightmare?

Much like political advertising, the digital ad ecosystem as a whole has been tainted, and nefarious entities gaming ad platforms are more than happy to exploit commercial advertisers as much as they are political ones. Brand marketers, Procter and Gamble being their poster boy , have been calling for more transparency in the industry related to the scourge of ad fraud for well over a year now. You've gotta wonder if some brand advertisers are thinking, hey, Senators, can we get some rules over here, too?

Political advertisers use the very same digital media and ad platforms used by brand advertisers, and I'd expect some pushback on the Honest Ads proposals from media sellers and their lobbyists. In fact, the New York Times reported last week that Facebook, Google and other tech firms have hired lobbyists specifically to influence regulations resulting from the fallout of the Russian ad infiltration.

While many won't want to be seen as an impediment to preventing another ad-driven fake news operation, logistics will be a challenge. Especially when it comes to presidential and statewide campaigns, digital ad buys are complex. Campaigns might develop hundreds, even thousands of variations of ad creative delivered by programmatic ad systems based on targeting criteria informed by data models and voter scores that might change day-to-day or even hour-to-hour. Both Hillary Clinton's and President Donald Trump's 2016 campaigns ran digital ad campaigns on Facebook and via lots of other digital platforms this way.

Information about television advertising by political campaigns is available as buys are made, and the proposed law would require digital platforms to report as frequently as possible, too. Implementation is one thing. Then there's the exposure. Will political advertisers be comfortable having details about targeting niche voter groups with controversial messages publicly revealed? Will they be comfortable having anything that could reveal intricacies about their persuasion or get-out-the-vote strategies revealed?

Looking on the bright side, maybe - and this is a weak maybe -- it could inspire political campaigns to clean up their own acts. But I'm not holding my breath.

Kate Kaye (@LowbrowKate) was a reporter covering digital advertising and media related topics from 1999-2017, and is the author of the 2009 book, "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media." She currently leads content strategy for women and under-represented minority executive clients for consulting firm SalientMG, and is host and producer of The Credentialed podcast.

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