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New York Lawmakers Propose Banning Anonymous Facebook Ads

Karen DeWitt
Senator Todd Kaminsky, D-Long Beach, stands at the podium with a chart highlighting the anonymous ad on Facebook that targeted him.

Some Democratic lawmakers 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.

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

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

Kaminsky says he’s been the target of some of the ads, including one which 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 says 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, has also been the target of anonymous ads since late 2015. He says the ads often have innocuous sounding names, like My Hudson Valley, or Not Our Tax Dollars, and I Love Bear Mountain. But he says they exist for a darker purpose, to spread what he says is “malicious and false” information.

Skoufis says he’s tried filing complaints with the state Board of Elections, which is investigating. Bu he says 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 on Facebook ads as exist for television ads. On broadcast stations, political advertisements must clearly disclose who paid for the ads.

He says 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 say 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 would also 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 Governor Cuomo 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 has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.