By now you've heard all about how Russians tried to help Donald Trump become president of the United States. They used an array of devious tactics, including turning the technologies of major American digital media companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter against the American people. In just one example, Russians "weaponized" Facebook, in the words of one member of Congress, by buying 3,000 fake ads ahead of Election Day. Those ads used Facebook's algorithms to target likely Trump supporters, and ad messages compared Hillary Clinton to Satan, fomented concern about insecure borders, and talked about needing to defend the Second Amendment. More than 10 million people saw these Facebook ads and others like them. None of the ads disclosed that they were paid for by Russians. When the ballot counting was done, Donald Trump had won the Electoral College by just 80,000 votes across three states.
It's been more than a year since Trump's win, and exactly what caused what in 2016 is still being investigated. But look broadly at where we are now. If increased division and political chaos is what Russians wanted to see in the United States, they got it.
Because devious success begets devious imitators, it's all but certain that all kinds of people will now try to use advertising on digital platforms to achieve all kinds of shady aims, especially in political races.
So it's not too paranoid to ask: What if someone tries to mess with a Seattle election in a similar manner? What if someone already has?
You might say, "Well, there oughta be a law."
To which I say, "Well, there already is a law."
That law was passed by the Seattle City Council in 1977, not too long after Richard Nixon was forced to resign as a consequence of some old-style "dirty tricks" in an American presidential election.
The problem is that big tech is currently ignoring Seattle's long-standing law on political advertising transparency—and won't even say why.
After Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, a lot of people had a lot of ideas about how to promote better, less corruptible government in America. A lot of those ideas were even good. Here in Seattle, for example, the city council passed a large piece of legislation aimed at promoting greater transparency in the financing of local political campaigns.
Not only did the Seattle City Council require more disclosure from politicians about the sources of their campaign money, it also voted to require more from the companies that sell political advertising.
In doing so, the council defined political advertising as any messaging that uses a "means of mass communication" to appeal for votes, money, or other kinds of support during an election. It said that companies selling political advertising must keep related "documents and books of account" open for public inspection "during normal business hours." It added that those "documents and books of account" must specify the names and addresses of people purchasing political ads aimed at Seattle elections, "the exact nature and extent of the advertising services rendered," how much was paid for those advertising services, and the manner of payment.
The public servants who wrote this 1977 law could not have imagined the advent of the internet, the not-yet-born Mark Zuckerberg's co-creation of Facebook in his Harvard dorm room, or the advantage that Russian monkey-wrenchers would one day take of Facebook's political ad-selling business. Back in the 1970s, it was "old media" like radio, television, and print newspapers that shaped the public consciousness.
But the language of the city council's law clearly applies to today's rising mass communication behemoths, Facebook, Google, and Twitter. In fact, if this Seattle law had been federal policy ever since 1977, then last year's Russian monkey-wrenching might never have been attempted—or it might have been quickly noticed by the public and halted before 80,000 votes put Trump in the White House.
The elected officials who originally crafted Seattle's law made their high-minded aims clear. "Public confidence in municipal government," they wrote in the law's preamble, "is essential and must be promoted by all means." For them, one means to that end was serious transparency around local election ads.
Which makes good sense.
So one day earlier this month, I went out to see whether Facebook, Google, and Twitter—which all have offices here in Seattle—are complying with, or even aware of, our city's tough election ad transparency law.
As I drove along the western edge of Lake Union toward the shiny Seattle offices of Facebook, I imagined a not-far-fetched scenario: One day, some Seattle political campaign or nefarious outside group decides to take a cue from the Russians. Perhaps that group is looking to slightly depress turnout among voters of color in a particularly close Seattle race, so they buy Facebook ads targeted at certain small groups of Black, Latino, and Asian likely voters in South Seattle. Those narrowly targeted Facebook ads might read, "Don't forget to vote on November 9!" when, in fact, the election is being held on November 7. How would the rest of us even know this had occurred?
Perhaps someone paying close attention in their individual Facebook silo would notice that bogus information was polluting their personal feed and shout it to the world. Something like this happened during the 2016 presidential election, when the mayor of Mansfield, Georgia, wrote on his public page, "Remember the voting days: Republicans vote on Tuesday, 11/8 and Democrats vote on Wednesday, 11/9." (In fact, the election was one day only, as always, and it was held on November 8.) But a Georgia mayor's public Facebook page is not a narrowly targeted Facebook ad. Or a Google ad that only shows up against certain search terms. Or a Twitter ad aimed only at certain types of users.
In order to "see" manipulative digital media ads whose buyers intentionally don't want to reach a general audience, you would need access to precisely what the Seattle law describes: documents and books of account showing all political ads purchased from digital media companies for a particular election, the "exact nature and extent" of those ads, and how much was paid for them.
That's what I was headed to Facebook to ask for.
The receptionist at Facebook was baffled.
At first she pointed to an iPad mounted atop her desk and suggested I use it to fill out an automated complaint form.
But the form didn't apply to me. I wasn't a Facebook user with a complaint about abusive online content. I was a local journalist carrying copies of a Seattle law that says I have a right to inspect data on digital ad buys in Seattle elections.
It was a thoroughly polite exchange, but it went nowhere. So I dropped off a formal letter requesting that Facebook comply with Seattle's election transparency law.
Then I headed to the downtown Seattle offices of Twitter. There I experienced the same thing: a baffled receptionist and polite acceptance of my formal letter requesting compliance. When I showed up the next day at the Google offices in Fremont, same story.
A few days later, I tested compliance in a different media realm. I showed up unannounced at the Seattle offices of KING 5, the local NBC affiliate. Unlike the baffled-but-blameless receptionists at the tech giants, the receptionist at KING 5's Sodo headquarters knew exactly what I was asking about and where the records were located. She was sitting amid an impressive array of Christmas decorations, but the room I was headed for would not be so well-appointed. No problem. Transparency doesn't need to be pretty.
Before we get to that un-pretty room, a quick detour into why I believe my request at KING 5 was so easily met while the Seattle tech giant offices, in stark contrast, had zero local ad buy records available for public inspection.
Local TV stations like KING 5 are accustomed to ushering unannounced guests like me into weird little rooms because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees their broadcast licenses, has long required that they keep a "public inspection file." That file must detail, among other things, the TV ads that people and groups are buying to influence elections.
This makes good sense. Television stations are using the public airways to make money broadcasting paid announcements intended to sway voters. It's only fair that the public gets some transparency in the bargain.
By complying with the FCC requirement and offering a "public inspection file"—which these days can also be found online—KING 5 ends up in solid compliance with Seattle's municipal law on election ad disclosure, too.
In contrast, the big tech companies, which for years successfully fought federal regulation of their election advertising, have never had to face a tough oversight commission in DC telling them to keep a "public inspection file" around.
Then came the 2016 presidential election. Ever since their digital platforms were used for Russian election meddling, tech companies have begun making noise about moving toward disclosure. Members of Congress have also been calling for new regulations. Facebook is currently testing some new political ad disclosure strategies in Canada with an eye toward bringing them to the United States ahead of the 2018 congressional midterms. But so far, here in the country that had its digital platforms hijacked by presidential election manipulators last year, little has changed.
Amid all this, it's entirely possible that the big tech companies just completely missed the existence of Seattle's clear and tough disclosure law. Or perhaps they just completely ignored it? I still don't know, because—although Facebook and Google (but not Twitter) confirmed receipt of my formal request that they comply with Seattle's law—no tech company has yet made anyone available for an interview on the subject.
Back to KING 5. After being welcomed into the station's holiday-tastic reception area, I was quickly shown into a large closet held open by a metal rolling cart.
It was not the cleanest large closet I have ever seen. But hey, there's no FCC requirement that the "public inspection file" closet be pristine. All I needed was to walk inside this closet and open the top drawer of a gray file cabinet that was also serving as a resting place for candy cane boxes and wicker baskets.
Inside that top drawer—voilà!—the data.
If I wanted to know how often a particular ad for new Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan ran on KING 5 in advance of this city's November election, the info was right there in the cabinet (or online). So was info on how much Durkan's ads cost, what dates they ran, and what demographic they were intended to reach.
But that cabinet covers only one local TV station. And even if I culled records from all the other local TV stations in Seattle, I still wouldn't have the full picture of Durkan's advertising push. During the last Seattle municipal election—in which Durkan won her race with 56 percent of the vote—more than $650,000 was spent by various local campaigns on digital ads. Durkan alone had more than $270,000 in digital ad money spent on her behalf.
I know a lot of those digital ads ran on Facebook and Google because the campaigns themselves reported buying those ads. But I don't know what all those ads looked like to social-media viewers or Google searchers. I also don't know how widely they were "broadcast" online, and I don't know what specific groups they targeted. These are all things the public should know.
That mystery around local ad targeting, in particular, gets at a big difference between broadcast television and digital media. You can't use broadcast television to micro- target gun lovers ages 32 to 64 in West Seattle (or worse), but you can do things like that with Facebook. So when the disclosures from the digital platforms finally come, they are going to have to be more involved than broadcast TV disclosures—revealing targeting info, ad images and iterations, and more.
In response to the lack of compliance I found at the Seattle tech giant offices, Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, sent letters to Facebook and Google—the two largest recipients of digital advertising money in the recent city elections.
Dated December 12, Barnett's letter to Facebook noted that city records show the company was paid "no less than $300,000" by Seattle campaigns "to communicate political advertising to its users" during the 2017 election cycle. In Barnett's December 12 letter to Google, he put the amount paid to that company at "no less than $150,000." (Twitter is a longer story; no local campaigns appear to have named Twitter as a direct recipient of ad money in 2017, though it's possible that further investigation will show some local Twitter ad buys.)
Barnett also outlined how Seattle's 1977 ordinance applies directly to local political advertising activities by Facebook and Google. He requested that both companies send him all the local political ad information they're "required to maintain for public inspection." And he gave them a deadline: January 2, 2018.
If the tech giants don't comply—well, the law has a provision for that eventuality, too. It says the companies can be fined $5,000 for each violation.
Meanwhile, I have a new holiday wish: for the tech giants to send me the data, too.