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"As digital political advertising continues to grow without legislative oversight, the disclosure that is so crucial to democratic decision-making is shrinking," argues Ann Ravel.

To protect free speech online, we need transparency, not secrecy

Ravel is the digital deception project director at MapLight and was a member of the Federal Election Commission from 2013 to 2017. She is now running as a Democrat for the California Senate.

Five years ago, as vice chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission, I wrote a statement calling on the commission to discuss online political messaging, which was and still is completely exempt from federal campaign finance disclosure laws. While I didn't foresee exactly what would happen over the next half-decade — Russia's interference in the United States' elections, the rise of the far-right aided by social media and the proliferation of digital disinformation — I did see that political campaign communications were increasingly moving online. If left unregulated, digital media posed an enormous threat to democracy as we know it and I wanted the FEC to discuss this.

The day after my statement, another commissioner, Lee Goodman, appeared on "Fox & Friends" to argue that I was trying to "censor" free speech online. Following his appearance, my Twitter account and FEC email were flooded with misogynistic and anti-Semitic messages and death threats. One email was even signed "Heil Hitler."

Though this was my first personal experience with individuals citing the First Amendment to push back, violently, against the notion of disclosure, it was far from my last. Ever since Bradley Smith in 2001 published "Unfree Speech"which asserts the First Amendment requires the repeal of all restrictions on campaign finance giving — the concept of free speech has been pitted against campaign finance disclosure. Just last month, Goodman called on this familiar rhetoric to argue against having an FEC symposium about online disinformation.

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