AUGUSTA, Maine — A Maine Senate committee heard testimony about a bill that seeks to increase transparency about who funds websites that appear to be news sites but whose articles advocate for certain politicians or political issues.
In testimony on Friday, Maine Senate President Troy Jackson pointed to an anonymously owned website called the Maine Examiner that posed as a news site but was eventually revealed to be run by the head of the state’s Republican party, the Sun Journal reported.
The bill seeks to require such sites to include a “PAID FOR BY” disclaimer in capital letters with at least 12-point type.
“By and large,” Troy said, the sites “are intentionally designed to look like a news organization. What sets the websites apart is that it’s difficult to find out who runs it, who funds it and many of the articles are both unsourced and have no byline.”
Another site, The Courier, spent $50,000 last year promoting U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Lewiston on social media. That site is operated by a progressive organization that spent millions on digital ads around the country, the newspaper reported, a kind of spending on social media advertisements that does not make sense for real news organizations.
But transparency advocates said that the way the bill is currently written could impinge on free speech rights as provided under the First Amendment.
John Brautigam, legal counsel and policy adviser for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, offered to provide expertise and guidance to the committee “to make sure the bill achieves its intended disclosure and can be successfully implemented.”
The Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs has not yet scheduled a working session on the bill.