Imagine it's 1986 and you turn on the television. A handsome man appears in an advertisement talking about the progress of human rights under Kim Il-Sung. What happens next?
Does the media look into who's behind the advertisement? Does the federal government investigate foreign propaganda ads purchased on US soil? It's easy to imagine all of these scenarios.
Now fast-forward to today: in the 21st century information flies rapidly from one end of the globe to the other. If you want to purchase an advertisement on the television, you still have to fill out clunky paperwork for the FCC. If you want to purchase an advertisement on Facebook, you just need a credit card and a billing address. None of the information about social media advertisers is public and finding out who, or what, is behind posts is nearly impossible.
Americans are now stuck in a propaganda free-for-all. While many are decrying the influence of money in politics, the truth is, we're entering a new age where our own elections are being directly influenced by foreign governments with no disclosure required.
Social media is not just creating borderless speech, but also borderless propaganda. While some have praised social media for empowering protesters in the Arab Spring and fueling democratic movements, we also have to recognize that social media is connecting everyday Americans with propaganda from authoritarian nations.
Never before have Americans had to be so careful and so mistrustful of the media they are exposed to on a daily basis. Our fundamental mistrust of information feeds into the cynical thinking that foreign propagandists are happy to exploit.
It's important for policymakers to think deeply about the implications of this new trend. The truth is, Russia could throw a few million dollars into boosting posts on Facebook tomorrow without anyone knowing about it. As more and more social media sites grow into marketing channels, it's important to recognize that these are also new avenues for state-sponsored propaganda.
Propaganda might not always be false or fake news either – for instance, what if China decided to sponsor Snapchat advertisements that educate Americans on the atrocities committed by the Japanese in World War II? The Rape of Nanking was a real atrocity. Imagine, after highlighting these atrocities in short video clips, the Chinese then began alluding to Japan's currency manipulation and Japanese labor laws, with messages designed to push progressive youth into action.
For the low price of ten to twenty million dollars, China could subtly influence how millions of young Americans perceive our alliance with our staunchest ally in the Pacific, pushing young activists into serving foreign state interests. Without social media advertisement disclosure laws, Americans have no way of knowing who's pulling their strings.
The scariest part is that campaigns like this have already happened, and they don’t all look like #Pizzagate - Russia has already proven this kind of manipulation is possible. Many have documented how Russian state media exploited white, progressive Bernie Sanders supporters by shifting their perception of Hillary Clinton from that of a life-long activist, feminist and progressive Democrat to that of a cold-hearted power player.
Through foreign, state-sponsored social media campaigns, large numbers of youth came to believe there was no difference between voting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. In places like Michigan, state-sponsored propaganda may have been enough to win Donald Trump the Presidency.
Don't Americans deserve to know where an advertisement on social media is coming from? The troubling trend of foreign propaganda on US soil should push lawmakers into action – the time for social media sovereignty is now.