When I went to the Seattle offices of Facebook, Google, and Twitter last week to look through their records of political ads purchased in this city's recent election, there were no such records available—even though Seattle law says those records must be available "for public inspection."
I had a dramatically different experience on Tuesday when I stopped by the offices of Seattle's local NBC affiliate, KING 5 television.
Unlike the blameless-but-baffled front desk folks at the local tech giant offices, the receptionist at KING 5 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 was not so well appointed. No problem. Transparency doesn't need to be pretty.
But before we get to the un-pretty room, some background on why I believe my Tuesday request at KING 5 was so easily met.
Local TV stations like KING 5 are used to ushering unannounced guests like me into weird little rooms because the Federal Communications Commission, 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 voters get 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 also ends up in solid compliance with Seattle's municipal law on election ad disclosure.
In contrast, the big tech companies, which successfully fought federal regulation of their election advertising, never had to face a tough oversight commission in DC telling them to keep a "public inspection file" around. Then came the last presidential election. Ever since their digital platforms were used for Russian election meddling, tech companies have begun moving toward disclosure—though no federal disclosure rules are yet in place to govern election advertising on digital platforms going forward.
Amid all this, it seems possible that the tech companies just completely missed the existence of Seattle's clear and tough disclosure law. (Or completely ignored it? I'll know more when they tell me more.)
In any case, after being welcomed into the KING 5 holiday-tastic reception area on Tuesday I was quickly shown into a large closet held open by a rolling cart:
It was not the cleanest large closet I have seen. But hey, there is 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, viola! The data.
If I wanted to know how often a particular Jenny Durkan TV ad ran on KING 5, how much that ad cost, what dates it ran, and what demographic it was intended to reach, it was all right there in the gray file cabinet. Or, you know, online.
But that cabinet only covers one local TV station. And even if I culled records from all the other local TV stations, I still wouldn't have the full picture of Durkan's advertising push. During the last Seattle municipal election—the one in which Durkan handily won the mayor's office—hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent by various local campaigns on digital ads. Durkan alone had more than $270,000 in digital ad money spent on her behalf.
We know a lot of those digital ads ran on Facebook and Google, because the campaigns themselves reported buying those ads. But we don't know what all those ads looked like to social media viewers or Google searchers, we don't know how widely they were "broadcast" online, and we don't know what groups they targeted.
That last unknown gets at a big difference between broadcast television and digital media. You can't use broadcast television to micro-target gun lovers age 32 - 46 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.
I'm sure it can be done.
Also, Seattle law requires that it be done.
I've asked Facebook, Google, and Twitter to let me know by the end of this week how they plan to comply with Seattle's election ad transparency law. I'll let you know what happens.