Representatives of Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and AOL descended on a Maryland State Board of Elections meeting yesterday afternoon. The reason: to ensure that a new set of rules governing social media and online advertising by political campaigns does not disrupt the flow of ad dollars from that growing market.
The board unanimously passed rules that require political campaigns to include a disclosure statement on social media pages, and in some forms of online ads, and other digital content. But potentially more cumbersome for some small campaigns, the rule extends requirements for retaining traditional campaign materials to digital ads, text messages, and even Twitter and Facebook posts. The rule are intended to ensure that voters can tell the difference between an official campaign message and a phony one.
The rule requires candidate committees and other political committees to include on their main Facebook profile pages standard language that denotes an association with their campaigns. Blogs or other social media accounts established for distributing videos, photos, or podcasts are required to feature the disclaimer, known as an authority line, which must include the name of the committee or committees that paid for the communication, and names of their treasurers.
Because Twitter posts are limited to 140 characters, the state would require the authority line on micro-blog account profile pages, or on landing pages or homepages associated with the accounts. Twitter already has its own Verified Account feature.
Online ads such as standard display units must bear the line, too. However, small ad units are exempt. Specific language describing text ads and small display units similar to Google AdWords and AdSense text units and Facebook’s display units was added to the final version of the ruling. The rule states that “a paid text advertisement that is 200 characters or less in length” and “a paid graphic or picture link where it is not reasonably practical due to the size of the graphic or picture link,” are exempt from the authority line requirement.
According to Ross Goldstein, deputy administrator at the Maryland State Board of Elections, and Jared DeMarinis, director of candidate and campaign finance, representatives of Google, Facebook, AOL, and Yahoo were all present at the board meeting yesterday, and all were in favor of the regulation.
The officials said the rules should help verify election-related messages for voters. They are also intended to extend current rules for traditional media messaging into the digital realm, and should help clarify the law for candidates and campaign staff. “We’re explaining to people how you comply with those regulations using this media,” said Goldstein.
Not everyone is pleased with the rules, though. The Center for Competitive Politics submitted a comment yesterday opposing the measures. One concern lies in the geographic ambiguity of digital communication. The free speech organization wrote that, according to the rule, “speakers outside Maryland can engage in activity prohibited by the regulation, yet Maryland candidates and committees cannot. It is thus unlikely that these regulations will be effective, and may result in unfair unintended consequences.”
A particularly unique component of the Maryland rule is a requirement for each of the campaign’s online ads to be stored in paper or a non-rewriteable electronic format for at least a year after the general election following the date when the campaign material was distributed. Text messages or social media posts – including blog posts, videos, photos, and podcasts – would have to be stored in a detailed log marking the date and content of the communication.
The Center for Competitive Politics, along with digital political campaign consultants ClickZ spoke with yesterday, expressed concern regarding the practicality of archiving all campaign-related Twitter and Facebook posts, in addition to blog posts, uploaded photos and videos, and e-mails.
“Additionally, the retention requirements are unrealistic, vague, and seem to serve no legitimate state interest,” wrote Allison Hayward, VP for policy at the Center, in the letter. She went on to ask, “Must each revision to a communication be kept? Suppose the communication contains dynamic content not within the site’s control? What state purpose is served by requiring that each and every advertisement, piece of material, or text message be logged and retained for a year?”
In an interview with ClickZ today, Hayward added, “An organization on the scale of a state campaign committee doesn’t have a lot of people on staff to do it well.”
The rule stands in contrast with one recently established by Florida for its state election candidates. That state’s law essentially alleviates the need for candidates and political committees to include disclaimers about who paid for their ads or who is behind their Twitter or Facebook accounts. It essentially covers Twitter posts, Google search ads, small display units such as those sold by Facebook, opt-in text messages, and opt-in apps.
Violators of the Maryland rules would be subject to the penalties of Maryland election law. The rules would not apply to supporters who aren’t coordinating with campaigns.
Follow Kate Kaye on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.
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