FEC lacking efficacy?


As campaigns have been rapidly hopping on board with a wealth of new digital tools, the FEC has struggled to figure out how to best ensure credibility and validity of campaigns’ messages. While they’ve decided web ads need text disclaimers, and microsites need the same paid-for language as direct mail. Facebook’s proven to be more difficult to regulate, with skirmishes over how much ads have to say (and where) and where to place the language on pages. Facebook Timelines seem ripe for a similar disagreement.

The asserted purpose of FB timeline is to give a “history” to brands or people. The Obama campaign has largely done just this–from making birth certificate jokes to highlighting his move to community organizing. Moreover, he combined it with a web video that doesn’t specifically name Timeline, but clicks through “The Story of Us” (covering the past five years) in a similar scrolling pattern, and exemplifies the use of the genre of the timeline in general to pitch a campaign narrative. Narratives have always been built on history, and anyone can write their version, but Timeline gives people a platform to push this narrative and a form through which to systematically prove its validity. The FEC, in turn, ensures that readers know who’s authoring these histories.

The Gingrich campaign is definitely writing history, but the tale they’ve written is of their opponent, Mitt Romney. Gingrich’s Timeline, called “Romney Record” and self described as “Governor of Massachusetts 2003-2007 Running for President since 2006 “I am not trying to return to Reagan-Bush,” features a history of Romney that highlights a prior stand for reproductive freedom and equal rights for same sex couples. It does as Kate Kaye says, seem similar to a microsite, complete with the necessary primitive graphics. But the structural form for this information–and therefore the information itself in some cases–provided by this timeline is different than both microsites and prior Facebook pages, and seemingly has slightly different FEC regulations of paid-for language.

Much more interactive than microsites, the paid-for language on Timelines is not stagnant at the bottom of all pages–and it couldn’t be, for people would never scroll that far down to see the text, and it wouldn’t meet requirements of being prominently displayed. Still though, Timelines have differentiated themselves from their “page” predecessors by highlighting the content of any timeline above information about the person or organization. As a result, the paid-for language is not present on the first page of the timeline, and can only be seen if a viewer clicks on the “About” link (which states: “About me: Paid for by Newt 2012”).

Now, the site design can be generously described as simplistic and budget conscious. As a result, it does not read like a Romney campaign production, and its authorship runs less of a risk of being mistaken for Romney himself. Still, the FEC does not just care if content is misattributed, but also has a stake in ensuring campaigns are on the hook for what they produce–that the public can easily understand who creates what, and hold the responsible parties accountable. And the fact that this particular text looks cheap and unprofessional does not excuse its glaring illumination of potential problems for regulation.

By requiring citizens to click through levels of links, functionally burying paid-for language, Timeline marks a change in FEC standards, despite having made no changes to policy. In fact, as the FEC has previously stood by and reaffirmed its requirement that Facebook ads contain prominent paid-for language despite the arguments that the material features of their size and room for text deserve exemption of a change in rules. Timelines seem to have skirted this issue, and throw the problem of the FEC being unable to regulate such rapidly changing tools. What is clear is that singular regulations, or even slightly amended versions of older regulations, are not going to do the trick for a rapidly changing digital environment. Policy, not just use, must be flexible in a digital era, and open to amendment or evolution just as quickly as technologies themselves. While it is known that policy decisions affect the production and use of messages, what is becoming clear is that as campaigns begin to use new platforms, their practices affect regulation as well.


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