Another political campaign watchdog group has joined the ranks of those calling for more regulations of online content published by politicians. The Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), a California-based group, released a report Monday detailing their recommendations for political messages transmitted via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and their compatriots. The bulk of their recommendations boil down to one point: social media should be regulated in the same way as traditional media. This approach – lumping social media in with all other media – has been a popular one lately, but is it the right move? Read on for more details from this report and analysis.
The report proposes that all paid advertising – already regulated on TV, in the form of mailers, in newspapers and on the radio – be subject to the same regulations. And that this should now include Facebook status updates, tweets, emails and the like. The report reasons that if the same or similar political message is being paid for offline and must be regulated, so too should online political communications be regulated.
The LA Times reached Roman Porter, the executive director of the FPPC, who maintained that the regulations are only intended to apply to politicians themselves, not independent bloggers who may be supporting a particular campaign. He notes, however, that bloggers should voluntarily disclose whether or not they have received money from a political campaign in their post.
And the report is not entirely unreasonable. It attempts to come to terms with the different “shapes” that online media takes, establishing flexible rules for short-form messages, like political tweets, that would have a hard time including a line about who funded the message within the 140-character limit. These forms of new media should place the sponsorship information in a visible location, like the Twitter profile page of the politician in question, rather than having to re-post it with every tweet.
The rules laid out in this report sound quite similar to a report released in June by the Maryland State Board of Elections. As we discussed when this report was released, the Board of Elections proposed that all electronic political communication have an “authority line” that clearly indicated who paid and supported the message.
So are these political watchdogs right in treating new media like its older counterpart? In one sense, yes – the public has a right to know whether a message they read on Twitter is the honest musings of a local grassroots activist or the paid advertisement of a political campaign. However, there is something to be said about the inability of governments – and businesses, and non-profits… – to keep up with the fast-paced changes happening in social media. Perhaps those who think that all online communications should be free of restriction will find a way around these proposed regulations using new technology, prolonging, perhaps indefinitely, the bureaucratic process of responding. Maybe, instead of treating new media just like the old, governments and other organizations should be examining it to see what, exactly, is so new about it. This could provide footing for quicker responses to our changing forms of communication, and allow governments to walk that line between free speech and transparency without stepping on anyone’s toes.