Last week, after putting out a call to Stranger readers, we learned that the hidden force behind an online campaign to influence debate over Seattle's head tax and homelessness funding was none other than the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
Although it was the Chamber that belatedly came forward to claim responsibility for this campaign—which decried the Seattle City Council's head tax plan and urged people to contact council members—the Chamber has declined to answer questions about how much it spent on this anonymous effort or whether it views the campaign as the kind of paid, politically-motivated communication that needs to be publicly reported by the purchaser.
But Wayne Barnett, director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, has an answer.
The answer, in short, is that it's totally fine under current Seattle rules to create an anonymous website and an anonymous Facebook page and then use them—together with strategically targeted Facebook ads and other online ad purchases—to try to influence public opinion and constituent lobbying on an issue brought before the city council.
Yes, this formula is the same formula used by the Russians to foment discord and unenlightened "democratic" debate during the 2016 US presidential election.
No, when Seattle residents are doing it to each other it is not presently considered a problem.
In the case of this anonymous online campaign from the Chamber, that's because the campaign didn't target one candidate or another during an election season or in the midst of a ballot initiative fight.
"Since this campaign neither promoted nor opposed a candidate or a ballot measure, it didn’t trigger the reporting obligations of our city’s Elections Code," Barnett told me. "Now that there is a referendum circulating, any promotion of or opposition to that referendum would trigger a reporting requirement. I should also note that the City doesn’t regulate grassroots lobbying."
The state does regulate "grassroots lobbying." But according to Kim Bradford, spokesperson for the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, the state doesn't regulate grassroots lobbying on local issues.
If that seems like a loophole to you, well, the Seattle City Council—target of this particular online campaign—does have the power to make and refine this city's laws.
But this kind of anonymous online pressure campaign during non-election times is not regulated.
It's easy to imagine why groups on all sides, not to mention profitable online ad merchants like Facebook, might want it this way. Perhaps tomorrow (or even today) it's a labor union funding the anonymous online influence operation. Or perhaps a law to bring transparency to anonymous online political pressure campaigns also ends up sweeping in photocopied poster campaigns and anonymous pamphleteers of all sorts.
But digital platforms—by privileging anonymous speech that has money behind it, and by merging that paid-for anonymous speech with a level of speed and precise targeting capabilities that are unavailable over other mediums—have created something new and, as we all know, powerfully disruptive.
Perhaps that warrants thoughtful consideration by a deliberative body, or by civic leaders who lately have been decrying the coarsening of Seattle discourse and the general American descent into online mob-ism.
Whatever happens, one thing is clear.
By choosing not to put their names behind this anonymous online pressure campaign, the leaders of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce missed an opportunity to foster the kind of public debate that powerful voices in this city often say they want: open, transparent, honest, and involving people who have the courage to put their real names behind their publicly-stated convictions.