We've heard a lot about how social media was used by Russia to target well over 100 million Americans with manipulative political messages intended to harm Hillary Clinton's campaign and help Donald Trump become president.
But what about our local elections?
In Seattle's mayoral election this year, Jenny Durkan, the winning candidate, benefitted from more than $273,000 in digital ad buys placed by her campaign and a pro-Durkan political action committee, according to campaign finance disclosures. Facebook alone received more than $45,000 to run pro-Durkan ads. Google received $67,000.
Absolutely no one (that I'm aware of) thinks our little ol' Seattle mayoral race was affected by anything remotely like the Russian campaign to tilt the 2016 US presidential election. But the amount being spent on digital ads in local Seattle races is a sign of digital media's growing importance in winning votes. And what the Russian campaign showed us is that digital ad buys can—and will—be used by pretty much anyone, anywhere who wants to quietly influence elections with disinformation and other malicious propaganda.
If that ever happens in a local Seattle race, or if it's already happening in local Seattle races, how will we know?
Durkan, who spent the most on digital advertising in the mayoral race, was hardly alone in paying Facebook and other tech giants to help get the word out. Challenger Cary Moon and a pro-Moon PAC spent more than $75,000 on digital ads. Primary challenger Nikkita Oliver spent more than $11,000. And in the intensely fought race for City Council Position No. 8, winner Teresa Mosqueda and a pro-Mosqueda PAC spent a total of nearly $73,000 on digital ads. Jon Grant, who lost, spent nearly $90,000.
What did all of those digital ads look like? Who, exactly, were they targeted at?
Did any Seattle campaign—whether in the mayoral race or any other race—engage in dirty tricks on social media? Did any local campaign aim one social media message at, say, white women over 50 in North Seattle while aiming a totally different social media message at men of color under 30 in South Seattle?
Did any wildly unexpected individuals or entities purchase digital ads aimed at influencing our local elections?
I have no idea, nor does anyone else in the general public—and that's the problem.
But a Seattle law that's been on the books since 1977 offers a clear solution.
Unlike at the federal level, where years of lobbying by the tech giants has thwarted efforts to bring more transparency to online political ads, here in Seattle we've long had a law that requires exactly this kind of transparency. It says anyone selling commercial advertising in local elections must disclose "the exact nature and extent of the advertising services rendered"—as well as the amount paid for the ads, the method of payment, and the names and addresses of those paying.
Does a Seattle law written decades before the launch of Facebook really apply to the tech giant? And to Google? And Twitter?
Yes, because of the way the Seattle law defines "political advertising." It says political advertising is:
Any advertising displays, newspaper ads, billboards, signs, brochures, articles, tabloids, flyers, letters, radio or television presentations, or other means of mass communication, used for the purpose of appealing, directly or indirectly, for votes or for financial or other support in any election campaign.
Hard to argue that Facebook and the others are not "means of mass communication."
So last week, pursuant to this Seattle law, I walked into the Seattle offices of Facebook, Google, and Twitter and politely asked for detailed information on local ad purchases in our 2017 municipal elections. I brought with me copies of the law, which reads in part:
Each commercial advertiser that has accepted or provided political advertising during the election campaign shall maintain open for public inspection during the campaign and for a period of no less than three years after the date of the applicable election, during normal business hours, documents and books of account which shall specify:
1. The names and addresses of persons from whom it accepted political advertising;
2. The exact nature and extent of the advertising services rendered; and
3. The consideration and the manner of paying that consideration for such services.
One part of me imagined these companies might have somehow heard about Seattle's law and, in a nod to the law's old-timey language, readied some bound "books of account" for anyone who showed up at the reception desk asking to perform a lawful "public inspection" of local political ad purchase information.
Or perhaps, I imagined, there was a dusty digital kiosk in a corner that I'd be pointed toward.
No and no.
Another part of me, the part that had guessed there'd be no compliance, was right.
At all three of the digital giants' Seattle offices—at Facebook, at Google, and at Twitter—the receptionists were baffled by my request. All of them politely accepted my letter asking their companies to comply with local election laws, as well as copies of the laws themselves. All promised to pass the materials along to the right people. But none seemed to have any idea what I was talking about.
I've since heard back from a spokesperson for Facebook, who confirmed receipt of The Stranger's request and promised to "be in touch." [Update: After this post went up, I received an e-mail from Google, too.] Silence, so far, from Twitter
I've asked all of the companies to let me know in five business days how they'll be complying with Seattle's law on local election ad transparency. I've also pointed out to them that violations of this law are punishable by a $5,000 fine for each violation.
I'll let you know what I hear back.
UPDATE December 7, 2017: Unlike Big Tech, Local TV Does Comply With Seattle's Law on Political Ad Transparency
UPDATE December 14, 2017: City of Seattle Tells Facebook and Google to Hand Over Political Ad Data