A recent Montana Public Radio report revealed that many politicians running for office in Montana have been failing to properly report campaign spending on social media sites – primarily Facebook.

MTPR is commended for doing the tedious work to expose the discrepancies. And they are considerable. State candidates for governor – both Republicans and Democrats – have purchased 120 ads that have appeared on Facebook more than three-quarters of a million times. And yet spending on these ads are not showing up on some candidates’ spending reports filed with the political practices commissioner’s office. Even more importantly, the report reveals shortcomings in campaign reporting laws that do not reveal enough information about social media advertising. That’s an issue lawmakers need to address.

Right now, politicians must report how much they spend on print and broadcast ads, where those ads appeared or were aired and what they contained. That may be sufficient for conventional political advertising. But as we have learned through recent elections, social media advertising is a different kind of animal.

Social media sites develop and maintain profiles of their users based on gender, the friends they link to and the websites those users visit. Facebook has a profile on anyone who has a Facebook page. Advertisers, including politicians running for office, use this data to target certain population demographics for certain types of advertising. Certain groups can be encouraged to vote or discouraged from voting through misleading advertising to which they are deemed susceptible based on their profile.

As American intelligence agencies have determined, Russian hackers used this type of data to sway voters in the 2016 presidential election.

Knowing who is buying political ads and where they are printed or aired is one thing. And that’s important for knowing how politicians are trying to buy their way into office. But knowing how they are targeting and skewing information to influence our behavior as voters is even more important.

On learning of the MTPR report, the state political practices commissioner sent a reminder to all candidates that they must report their online social media advertising expenditures. Candidates should take heed.

This is the 21st century. Things have changed. And campaign finance reporting needs to change too.

Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Nick Ehli, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Will Swearingen, community member
  • Angie Wasia, community member

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