Sunday, September 20, 2015

We’ll Be Watching You

Many of us have noticed that somehow, after we send a text or email about a particular subject, we somehow begin to be bombarded by emails, ads inserted in strategic places on your home page or in little carve-outs on those Web-searched pages you’ve pursued, and maybe even a text from an advertiser you’ve never seen before… based on that keyword you used in your digital communication. Obviously, they are tracking you! Data scrapers. Metrics analysts. Automated tracking software. They may claim it is “anonymous,” but we don’t necessarily trust the source. Might be the government. Maybe even our government. Maybe not. Pledges that our personal data is “secure” is laughable mythology, as the federal Office of Personnel Management and the cuddly members of hook-up site, Ashley Madison, have discovered. And there is more than just a little overlap between AM and OPM players!
But we are in a pre-election feeding frenzy, as a litany of candidates with more money than they have ever had (thank you Citizens United) are using every marketing and advertising technique at their disposal. And those with savvy handlers are tracking potential sympathetic followers with unprecedented zeal. You might as well have one of those handlers standing over your shoulder taking notes. We also are aware of dark money contributors to SuperPacs with gobs and gobs of influence-buying cash. We don’t know who they are, and you’d think the Supreme Court were getting a cut of the new cash-for-voter-influence system they have created.
With all this new cash in the political mix, all the new mass media technologies available, you’d also think that our legal system has kept up with these changes. Not only is that completely false, but even where government regulators could penetrate the walls built by political miscreants, Congress has made sure that these agencies are so severely underfunded that they don’t have the capacity to do their jobs anyway. This is the underfund-to-disempower pattern we have seen with regulators at the federal Securities and Exchange Commission (watchdogs over the financial world) and the Environmental Protection Agency. Political campaigners – contributors and those who control what is done with those campaign dollars – can hide in the shadows. And they are watching your every move.
“Yet while political advertisers will know a lot about you, you may know very little about them. Due to paralyzed federal watchdogs and antiquated campaign finance rules that didn't anticipate the explosion of digital politicking, there is virtually no oversight of online ads. When it comes to old-fashioned print and TV political ads, the rules are simple: The candidate or organization paying for them must be disclosed. With online ads, there's a major loophole: A disclaimer is required only if someone pays to place an ad on a website. No disclosure is required for material that is posted on a campaign site nor for videos or images that can be distributed freely via social media. In other words, an attack ad can find its way onto YouTube or get retweeted or liked a million times without anyone knowing who made it. And so-called issue ads—spots that praise or slam a candidate without explicitly telling you how to vote—are not required to carry a disclaimer of any kind, no matter where they run online. That means a dark-money group can plaster the web with content, true or false, that is devastating to a particular candidate without having to claim responsibility for it.
“The Federal Election Commission's last major overhaul of political advertising rules was in 2002. And that rewrite was completed long before anyone pondered the possibility of things like YouTube, much less Snapchat (which several candidates, including Paul and Jeb Bush, have incorporated into their campaigns). Currently, the commission does not have the ability to scrutinize how a campaign or any other group spends its money online. ‘It's not clear to me that the FEC has much of a watchdog role in terms of digital spending,’ says Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics who worked at the commission for 30 years… ‘Without some kind of statutory reason to care, the FEC isn't going to force candidates to be too specific about their strategic behavior.’”, August 21st.
The battles on Capitol Hill as well as within the agencies themselves are heavily divided along party lines. Republicans, whose access to all forms of transparent and dark SuperPac easily dwarfs Democratic counterparts, oppose anything that would rein in the spending or force dark contributors to identify themselves. Democrats believe that if the voters actually knew who was controlling the political spending, they would get “wise” and limits would follow. “Grassroots” has rather dramatic different definition, depending on which side of the aisle you sit.
“Early this year, Republican FEC Commissioner Lee Goodman penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed accusing his liberal colleagues of seeking to clamp down on harmless grassroots political expression. ‘Free and low-cost Internet postings are not corrupting because no large expenditures of money are necessary,’ he argued. He also claimed there is no way to distinguish online political discourse from paid messaging. ‘The specter of government agents reviewing the thousands of daily online political posts is as impractical as it is ominous,’ he wrote.
“Democratic FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub says her Republican colleagues are blocking regulations for digital political ads because they oppose the commission expanding campaign finance rules under any circumstances. ‘One of the reasons why people like Lee Goodman are so adamant about internet freedom is because basically the wave of the future is going to be a lot more online campaign advertising,’ she says. ‘And it will effectively be going underground in terms of getting any kind of regulation.’”
If the measure of a corrupt system is allowing anonymous and elite contributors (even when identified) of unlimited sums of money to influence policy and “motivate politicians to play ball,” then the United States clearly falls on the wrong side of the line. According to the latest Corruption Perception Index (2014) from Transparency International, the United States is tied with three other countries at number 17 in transparency… and falling. We should be at the top of the list, but we’re not. And if we do not take steps to make the system work for “most of us” and not the power elite with the cash to buy elected office, the cherished democracy we call the United States of America will fade away.

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