Aligning its laws with the growing prominence of online social media, Maryland now requires political candidates to identify their online campaign material.

"It allows them to freely use these mediums without having any sort of worry," said Maryland Candidacy and Campaign Finance Director Jared DeMarinis. "And I think that was the biggest problem beforehand -- there wasn't a clear set of rules or guidance on this issue."

In time for the Sept. 14 primary, the legislation passed 11-1 by the state General Assembly's Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review after a hearing last month, DeMarinis said.

"By doing this early for this election, it allows them to know the rules up front and engage in these areas with a good set of rules and guidelines," DeMarinis said.

The rules took effect Tuesday, Aug. 3, and expand current campaign material law to include "electronic media" materials like social media sites, microblogs and online ads created by a political committee -- making them subject to "authority line" requirements.

An authority line -- essentially a declaration of approval listing the committee that paid for the space and the campaign treasurer's name -- previously had to be placed or broadcast in print, TV or radio ads. They typically read, "I'm 'Candidate Joe Smith, and I approve this message.' Paid for by the Committee to Elect Joe Smith."

With the new legislation, Maryland is the first state to extend the rule to cover the online realm. Other state legislatures are considering similar legislation.

Facebook recently applauded the state's comprehensive, proactive approach. Representatives from AOL and Google also attended the hearing in Maryland and backed the rules, DeMarinis said.

"The new regulations are a victory for campaigns using social media to reach voters and for voters using social media to learn about candidates," a Facebook spokesman wrote in an e-mail. "By providing clarity on the legal use of social media in campaigns, Maryland is leading the way for the rest of the country."

The rules cover websites, e-mail, social media accounts, microblogs and online advertisements. In the event that the authority line can't be posted (if space or the account doesn't permit doing so), the user must either register the medium with the state elections board or include a link that redirects to a landing or home page that "prominently displays the authority line information."

As of now, every social media site allows users to display such authority lines, DeMarinis said.

Along with providing candidates some clarity, the rules will also help combat misinformation, DeMarinis said. "The idea was ... to make sure the public is aware of who's the source behind this information, so they can make informed decisions at the ballot box," he said.

Maryland's move comes at a time when several other states -- Wisconsin, California and Texas -- are considering similar approaches, DeMarinis said. This week a California campaign watchdog agency -- a Fair Political Practices Commission subcommittee -- recommended regulating electronic political advertising. In Florida, state lawmakers have partially regulated candidates' use of social media sites, but it was a reactionary move after lawsuits were filed.

"Most states basically ignore the existence of Facebook, Twitter, etc., when it comes to political communications," National Conference of State Legislatures staffer wrote in a recent review of state statutes, rules, ethics and election commission opinions, and legislation. "In a nutshell, social media is just beginning to come onto the radar with regards to state campaign finance. The broader category of electronic political communications, which seems more directed at websites and e-mails, is only minimally addressed."

DeMarinis said violators of the new social media rules face the same consequences as those who don't follow the rules for print and broadcast authority lines. The penalties, depending on the severity and depth of the violation, include corrective action, a $1,000 fine or the inability to hold public office for four years.

 

Karen Wilkinson  |  Staff Writer