Troy Jackson seeks transparency for online news sites trying to influence elections

·3 min read

May 24—Maine Senate President Troy Jackson is fighting back against a growing number of online sites purporting to deliver the news but really aimed at helping particular candidates win public office.

Jackson, an Allagash Democrat, said sites that masquerade as news organizations as they assail opponents or prop up chosen candidates ought to include a disclaimer to inform readers who paid to put them online.

"This is good transparency for everyone," Jackson told the Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs on Friday.

The issue has been growing in importance in Maine since unmasking of the anonymous Maine Examiner in 2018 found that the state GOP's executive director, Jason Savage, was secretly operating the site. He insisted he did it on his own time and that it had no connection to the Republican Party, though its stories were decidedly partisan in their slant.

The Maine Ethics Commission rules that Savage didn't violate the state's law by keeping his identity under wraps.

In the years since, more and more of these online "news sites" have arisen, on both sides of the political aisle, to dump ever-larger sums into one-sided "stories."

One of them, The Courier, spent at least $50,000 last year to promote its stories touting U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Lewiston, essentially turning its advertising budget into pro-Golden commercials on social media.

Jackson, who mentioned the Maine Examiner case, told the committee there "has been a dramatic increase in the number of 'fake news' websites circulating online and in social media feeds."

"By and large," he said, they "are intentionally designed to look like a news organization. What sets the websites apart is that it's difficult to find out who run it, who funds it and many of the articles are both unsourced and have no byline."

Jackson said they are typically run "by political operatives or organizations to promote a particular cause, agenda or political candidate."

The committee considering Jackson's bill hasn't scheduled a work session on the measure, but officials said it likely needs some fine-tuning.

John Brautigam, legal counsel and policy adviser for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, and Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, said some revisions are probably necessary to ensure the wording is clear and constitutional.

Brautigam told the panel that "internet 'news' sites are increasingly savvy about using the appearance of traditional media in an attempt to create the impression of objectivity and credibility. It has become quite difficult for the public to discern whether an online site is a biased campaign operation, a truly objective independent media source, or something in-between."

Wayne said the language in the bill cannot "go too far in imposing an unreasonable requirement" given free speech mandates derived from the First Amendment.

In Jackson's bill, those covered would need to put a "PAID FOR BY" disclaimer in capital letters with at least 12-point type so those seeing a piece online would know it wasn't a normal news site.

But state Rep. Patrick Corey, a Windham Republican who said he's been attacked by anonymous foes, said website graphics don't work like print so the print-related terms may not make sense online.

He appeared sympathetic, though, to the notion of publicizing who sponsors such attacks.

"I'd love those dirtbags who went after me and didn't put their name on it to be nailed to a wall," he said during the public hearing.

"Let's do it," Jackson responded.

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