Friday was the deadline for Facebook to comply with a longstanding Seattle law requiring companies to disclose detailed information about the political ads they sell targeting local elections.
Specifically, the law in Seattle says that Facebook—and, for that matter, any entity selling political ads aimed at this city’s elections—must disclose, upon request, “the exact nature and extent” of such ads, the “names and addresses” of people who purchased the ads, and specific payment details.
But Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, says the barebones spreadsheet (.pdf) that Facebook sent him on Friday is a woefully inadequate disclosure.
"For more than 40 years, Washington state and Seattle law have both required those who accept advertising dollars from political campaigns to be transparent with the public about the 'exact nature and extent of the advertising services' they provide," Barnett wrote in a statement to The Stranger.
"We gave Facebook ample time to comply with the law," Barnett continued, "but their two-page spreadsheet doesn’t come close to meeting their public obligation. I’ll be discussing our next steps this week with the City Attorney’s office."
Back in December, in response to The Stranger's unsuccessful attempt to get 2017 Seattle election ad data from Facebook, Barnett sent the company a letter telling it to comply with our city's law by January 2.
After Facebook requested a 30-day extension and told Barnett it was "taking this matter very seriously," Barnett granted the company additional time. He also met with Facebook officials who flew up to Seattle on January 24 to discuss the issue further.
Then, on Friday, the company sent Barnett the two-page spreadsheet. It came with a cover letter from Facebook Associate General Counsel Karen Berenthal, who said the company was offering Barnett limited information on what it described as merely "the nature and extent" of certain ads purchased on Facebook targeting the 2017 Seattle municipal elections. Note that Berenthal wrote the company was outlining "the nature and extent" of those ads, not "the exact nature and extent"—the latter being what's actually required under Seattle law.
Additionally, as Barnett noted in an e-mail back to the company on Friday, Facebook failed to provide him with copies of the ads in question or information about their "intended and actual audiences."
This would be important information for the public to have because political ads on digital platforms, as we learned during the last presidential election, can be used to narrowly target different demographic groups with messages that remain invisible to the wider electorate.
Further, the two-page spreadsheet Facebook sent to Barnett appears to inaccurately convey what local political campaigns actually spent on Facebook ads last year.
Take "People for Jenny Durkan," the well-funded Independent Expenditure group that helped our current Seattle mayor win election. Facebook's disclosure to Barnett only shows "People for Jenny Durkan" spending $11,906 on Facebook ads. But that group's own disclosure filings show that "People for Jenny Durkan" spent more than $40,000 on Facebook ads during the 2017 Seattle mayoral election.
Similarly, Facebook's disclosure to Barnett shows Nikkita Oliver's failed mayoral campaign spending only $100 on Facebook ads. Oliver's own disclosure filings show her campaign spending nearly $2,000 on Facebook ads.
The failed city council campaign of Jon Grant? Facebook's disclosure to Barnett shows Grant spending only $4,535 on Facebook ads. Grant's own disclosure filings show his campaign spending more than $55,000 on Facebook ads.
It goes on like this. Winning Seattle City Council candidate Lorena González, according to Facebook's disclosure to Barnett, spent $8,263 on Facebook ads. According to González's own disclosure filings, her campaign spent more than $19,000 on Facebook ads.
Even the data on former Mayor Ed Murray's never-official, soon-abandoned campaign for reelection is weird. When it comes to the Murray campaign, the Facebook disclosure spreadsheet says: "Spend Data Unavailable." But the data is available from the "Ed Murray for Mayor" disclosure filings, which list $304.58 in Facebook ads.
It's unclear exactly what accounts for these discrepancies. Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told me I would need to ask the campaigns about them. In fact, it seems more likely that the discrepancies have something to do with the way Facebook handled Barnett's months-old demand that the company comply with Seattle law.
While the law requires Facebook to know who's buying political ads aimed at Seattle's elections, it appears that Facebook had Barnett send the company a list of Facebook page URLs connected to the campaigns and independent expenditures involved in Seattle's 2017 municipal elections. Then, Facebook provided Barnett some limited data on political ads purchased through those URLs during 2017.
But as Facebook must know, and as the campaigns' disclosure filings clearly show, doing things this way is not going to give us an accurate picture of the total amount spent on Facebook ads aimed at Seattle's 2017 elections. (Never mind what those Facebook ads looked like and who they targeted.)
A lot of the Facebook ads targeting Seattle's 2017 municipal elections were bought on behalf of various campaigns through third parties—political consultants who handle a candidate's social media strategy. It seems likely, based on the above-mentioned discrepancies, that a significant number of Facebook ads targeting Seattle's 2017 municipal elections were not purchased through the particular Facebook pages Barnett sent to Facebook.
The law involved here, it's worth noting, is titled "Commercial Advertisers' Duty to Report."
The burden, it would seem, is squarely on the commercial advertiser to know when it's selling a political ad aimed at Seattle's elections.
By relying on Barnett to send over specific Facebook URLs, and then only giving out information relevant to those URLs, Facebook effectively transferred the burden to Barnett, making it Barnett's responsibility to know all the Facebook pages used to purchase ads aimed at Seattle's 2017 elections.
Clearly, that process didn't produce an accurate picture. Perhaps, in the future, the responsibility for knowing about all the Facebook ads purchased with the aim of influencing Seattle's elections should be on... Facebook.
Barnett has now made clear that what Facebook sent him is inadequate, and that he'll be "discussing our next steps this week with the City Attorney’s office." If one of those next steps ends up being Ethics and Elections Commission charges brought against Facebook for failing to comply with Seattle's election transparency law, then the company could be on the hook for a $5,000 penalty for each violation.
It's not just Barnett who wants to see Facebook meeting its obligations on this issue.
Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell has said Facebook needs to follow this city's law or "be held accountable." Washington State Governor Jay Inslee has said he wants Facebook to "disclose detailed information about political advertising, including ad targeting information." And in the nation's capital, both of Washington State's US Senators are backing a proposed federal law, called the "Honest Ads Act," that would force Facebook to be more transparent about political ads purchased in federal elections. (“The public deserves to know who is behind political ads," Washington Senator Patty Murray told The Stranger back in December.)
As for Google, the other company that Barnett told to comply with Seattle's law? It reached out to Barnett on Friday and, through its Seattle lawyer, said:
Google has been working diligently to complete a production of information it has identified as responsive to the [Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission's] letter of 12/12. Google currently anticipates that it will complete this production no later than February 21, although it is dedicated to doing so as expeditiously as possible.
Stone, the Facebook spokesperson, did not immediately respond to Barnett's statements about how the company's Friday disclosure "doesn’t come close to meeting their public obligation."
But Stone did send a response to a question I'd asked last week about how things went on January 24, when Barnett and Facebook representatives met in Seattle.
“We appreciated the meeting with the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission and the opportunity to underscore Facebook’s firm commitment to ad transparency," Stone wrote. "The conversation was constructive and is one we look forward to continuing with the commission.”