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FEC signals it will not regulate political social media influencers

Dec 7, 2023
Illustration of a hand touching a phone with a dollar bill on the screen

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Federal Elections Commission is not expected to require disclosure when social media influencers are paid to promote political causes and candidates, per a draft final rule published by the agency on Thursday.

Why it matters: Social media influencers can continue to be paid to promote politics without a federal disclosure requirement, a move which some will applaud as a win for free speech but others will consider a blow to transparency in elections.

  • Most social media platforms require their own sort of disclosure for such content, but enforcement of these rules varies and political advertising can slip through the cracks even on platforms that have banned it.
  • Influencers can also decide themselves if they want to disclose if they've been paid to promote something political. But they won't have to.

Details: The commission considered whether the definitions of "public communication" and "internet public communication" should include political paid influencer content.

  • The FEC’s draft rule does contain revised definitions for those two terms if an advertiser pays a platform for the influencer's content to be boosted or more widely distributed (a promoted ad on Instagram, for example). That will require disclosure, per the draft rule.
  • But there will be no new requirements for influencers posting to their own account on behalf of a political cause or candidate for a fee, without the aforementioned paid boosting.

What they're saying: "This rulemaking is a win for free speech on the internet. By limiting its disclaimer regulations only to traditional paid ads, the FEC is reaffirming its longstanding exemption for political activity online," Republican Commissioner Sean Cooksey told Axios in an exclusive statement.

Context: Those pushing for federal disclosure requirements for influencers have argued that regulation is key to transparency in the digital age for democracy.

  • "Many influencers are professionals — and they constitute a burgeoning, highly profitable, industry," media researchers from the University of Texas wrote in an op-ed in March. "Political constituents who use social media platforms should have a right to know if someone who talks to them about a political position received money to do so."
  • Influencers have been popping up in elections on both sides of the aisle. Mike Bloomberg paid influencers to post memes on his campaign's behalf in 2020. Political action committees paid influencers to promote causes throughout the 2022 election season, and influencers rallied behind Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton when he was impeached.

What's next: The FEC will vote to adopt the rule next week, and it is expected to pass, per a person familiar with the agency.

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