As the 2024 election looms, political advertising for both parties is flooding the airwaves and internet — and the broadcasters and tech platforms getting paid for those ads have long fought efforts to expose the identities of the big-money interests that are funding them.
The marketing onslaught is funded in part by dark money groups, which aren’t required to disclose the corporate interests that back them. For years, enriched by political advertising, the broadcast and tech lobbies have fought efforts to rein in dark money spending. By doing so, they have prevented voters from uncovering the corporate interests behind the unending ads, so they can understand what’s really motivating the ad blitz.
Now, broadcasters and tech companies are cashing in.
Last week, a super PAC backing President Joe Biden’s campaign announced it was launching a $250 million advertising campaign across seven battleground states, calling the spending a historic investment in political marketing. The campaign will dedicate nearly $30 million to TV markets in Arizona and Georgia, and roughly $35 million on YouTube advertising alone. The investment by this super PAC alone is equivalent to nearly half of the $600 million the Biden campaign and various allies spent in battleground states by mid-October 2020.
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It’s not entirely clear where these millions are coming from. The super PAC — called “Future Forward” — receives millions in donations from affiliated dark money groups, which are nonprofits and limited liability companies (LLCs) that don’t have to disclose their donors. Such dark money organizations have become a favorite tool of billionaires and corporate interests to secretly funnel millions toward efforts to sway voters without any sort of disclosure or accountability.
In the 2022 election cycle, Future Forward received $16 million, or roughly half of its reported donations, from a single dark money group, the nonprofit Future Forward USA Action, which does not publicly disclose its donors.
These dark money organizations aren’t required to disclose their funding sources thanks in part to the broadcast, cable, and tech lobbies, which have lobbied on disclosure requirements for more than a decade.
“Broadcasters think that if there’s greater transparency of money being spent on campaign ads, it’s going to cost them,” said Craig Holman, an ethics lobbyist with nonprofit consumer interest group Public Citizen. “That’s why they oppose it.”
Such industries represent a powerful force in Washington. The National Association of Broadcasters, the main lobbying group for TV and radio companies, spent $11 million lobbying lawmakers last year, federal data shows. Meta, parent company of Facebook and Instagram, which has come under fire for its lax oversight of lucrative super PAC advertising on its platforms, spent nearly $20 million in 2023, including on dark money transparency efforts.
The National Association of Broadcasters did not reply to a request for comment about its previous opposition to transparency legislation. Meta did not reply to questions about its stance on the legislation.
“A Major Step Toward Reform”
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision ruled that corporations and special interest groups had the right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence political campaigns, opening the floodgates for dark money political spending. Every year since then, Democrats led by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) have worked to pass the Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act, a bill which would impose new transparency requirements on all political action groups, including secretive dark money groups.
“The DISCLOSE Act gets at a category of spending that is currently very opaque,” explained Saurav Ghosh, director of the federal campaign finance reform program at the transparency and voting rights legal advocacy group Campaign Legal Center. The legislation would force dark money groups to reveal their donors and owners, unveiling the provenance of tens of millions in political spending that funds advertising each election cycle.
The DISCLOSE Act would require political nonprofits like Future Forward Action — which are usually registered as 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations — to reveal the identities of donors giving them $10,000 or more. Shell companies, another dark money vehicle used to hide donors’ identities, would be required to disclose ownership information in regular reports to the Federal Election Commission. Super PACs, too, would be required to make more timely disclosures of their donors; currently they only have to do so quarterly, or in some cases monthly during an election year.
If the DISCLOSE ACT passed, voters would know the identities of the big-time donors behind the impending onslaught of YouTube campaign ads, sponsored Facebook posts, and TV commercials that will be driving Biden’s reelection campaign — not to mention Donald Trump’s campaign and Nikki Haley’s primary bid.
Holman called the DISCLOSE Act’s transparency requirements “a major step toward reform.”
Yet despite more than a decade of efforts from the bill’s supporters, the legislation has never made it out of Congress. This has historically been a partisan matter: While the DISCLOSE Act frequently receives unanimous support from Democrats, Republicans oppose the reforms, and have successfully blocked it for more than a decade. But as the Biden campaign proved last week, Democrats are cashing in on dark money, too.
“[Conservatives] seem to think that this kind of dark money has benefited the Republicans more than Democrats, although they are quite mistaken,” Holman said. “Democrats are also making extensive use of dark money.”
In a statement to The Lever, Whitehouse wrote, “Dark money is a corrupting force in American politics and one of the most insidious threats to our democracy. We cannot continue to allow billionaires and special interests to secretly rig the system at the expense of hard-working Americans.”
More Than A Decade Of Lobbying
But while partisan politics have proved a formidable obstacle for the DISCLOSE Act, so have the broadcast and tech lobbies.
Back in 2010, when the DISCLOSE Act was first introduced, the National Association of Broadcasters and a cable industry lobbying group now known as the Internet and Television Association launched a campaign against the legislation, writing a strongly worded letter to congressional leadership that warned the groups were “greatly concerned” about some aspects of the bill.
One issue at the time was the bill’s new requirements for TV and radio political ads, including a provision that would have forced broadcasters to lower the cost of airtime for federal candidates buying ads and new transparency requirements for groups spending big on campaign ads, which the groups called “harmful” to their industries.
Ultimately, in 2010, the first DISCLOSE Act was blocked by a GOP filibuster. And in subsequent versions of the bill, the provisions that most alarmed broadcasters and cable were excised from the legislation.
Still, broadcasters have continued to lobby on the bill. While the Internet and Television Association hasn’t reported lobbying on the DISCLOSE Act since 2014, in each of the past three years the National Association of Broadcasters has reported lobbying on the bill, often saying that it was focused on provisions “relating to radio and television advertising.” In total, the National Association of Broadcasters has spent $191 million on all lobbying since 2010, while the Internet and Television Association has spent $218 million.
Recently, broadcasters have been joined in their efforts by social media giants. That includes Meta, which makes millions of dollars on political advertising. Meta has reported lobbying on the bill in multiple quarters since 2021, although the focus of the company’s lobbying efforts is unclear.
However, in Washington state, the company has launched a legal battle challenging a decades-old state law that requires commercial advertisers to disclose funding details behind their political advertising, and which in 2018 was expanded to cover digital advertisers like Facebook. Meta has argued that the law’s requirements are overly burdensome, leading to “severe chilling effects on political speech” by incentivizing platforms to discontinue political advertising in Washington, as Meta has done.
Critics see Meta’s challenge to the law as a way to protect dark money interests from state-level scrutiny. “As spending on online political advertising surges nationwide, federal regulations — and self-regulation by tech platforms — have proven inadequate, leaving it to the states to ensure that digital ads are held to the same standards as other political advertising,” wrote several organizations, including Campaign Legal Center, in an amicus brief opposing Meta’s challenge.
Now, television and radio broadcasters — as well as social media platforms — are seeing a major payoff, as Biden’s super PAC invests millions into television markets around the country. Trump’s campaign, too, is spending big: A key super PAC supporting the former president invested $4 million on advertising in Iowa in the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses.
But if broadcast and tech giants think the only way they can protect this windfall is by continuing to oppose dark money reforms, Ghosh at the Campaign Legal Center thinks they’re mistaken.
“I don’t see any connection between empowering voters with that information and adversely impacting the social media or broadcast industries,” he said. “Folks are still going to advertise. They’re still going to spend money. They’re just going to be required to disclose where that money’s coming from.”