Mark Zuckerbergs Facebook turned over long-awaited data on Seattle political ads on Friday, but the city says the disclosure doesn’t come close to meeting their public obligation.
Mark Zuckerberg's company turned over long-awaited data on Seattle political ads on Friday. But Seattle says Facebook's disclosure "doesn’t come close to meeting their public obligation." Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Yesterday, in response to the news that Facebook has failed to follow Seattle's law on political ad disclosure, a spokesperson for the company told Reuters (and many other news organizations) that Facebook is, in fact, "a strong supporter of transparency in political advertising."

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The Facebook spokesperson also said the company had, indeed, provided "relevant information” to Seattle's Ethics and Elections Commission.

What Facebook provided, however, was a two-page spreadsheet that the commission's executive director, Wayne Barnett, says "doesn’t come close to meeting their public obligation."

Why doesn't it?

As they say, let's do the numbers.

5,000% ↑

For perspective, let's begin with the fact that in Seattle, purchases of political ads on Facebook increased by 5,000 percent between 2013, our last mayoral election year, and 2017, the mayoral election year for which Facebook is supposed to provide Barnett (and me) with data.

Back in 2013, according to local financial disclosures, the major campaigns for mayor, city council, and city attorney reported spending a grand total of $5,922 on Facebook ads.

(Some paid the company amounts that now seem comically small. Council member Nick Licata: $10. Council member Mike O'Brien: $30.)

Then, in 2017, the major Seattle campaigns for mayor, city council, and city attorney collectively spent more than $300,000 on Facebook ads.

This mirrors a national trend in which political ad spending is migrating to digital platforms.

The problem is that US law still largely fails to require companies like Facebook to disclose anything about the political ads they publish—except here in Seattle, where a law that dates back to the 1970s requires such companies to disclose “the exact nature and extent” of their political ads, the “names and addresses” of people who purchased the ads, and specific payment details.


If you add up all the Facebook political ad purchases disclosed by the company's two-page spreadsheet on the 2017 Seattle municipal elections, this is the amount you get.

More than $300,000

This is the amount that was actually spent on Facebook ads in 2017 by Seattle's major campaigns for mayor, city council, and city attorney—and the independent expenditures that backed them—according to campaign disclosure filings.

In fact, the total amount spent on Facebook ads by these campaigns may be considerably higher because of the way certain campaigns and IEs reported their digital ad spending.

More than $56,000

The amount the campaign and IE behind failed mayoral candidate Cary Moon spent on what I'm calling "undifferentiated digital ad buys."

That is, digital ad buys that are reported in campaign disclosure filings as simply "digital advertising" or "digital ads: Facebook, Google, YouTube." Without more information from the relevant campaigns (which I'm currently seeking), it's impossible to know exactly how much money from each of these "undifferentiated digital ad buys" went to which particular company.

More than $180,000

The grand total spent on "undifferentiated digital ad buys" in Seattle's 2017 municipal elections, according to my tally. They trace to the campaigns of Moon ($31,500), failed mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver ($9,326), and failed city council candidate Jon Grant ($27,000), as well as to independent expenditures backing Moon ($25,000), new Mayor Jenny Durkan ($75,000), and new Council member Teresa Mosqueda ($15,000).


The amount spent on Facebook ads by the winning 2017 campaign of Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, according to Facebook's spreadsheet.


The actual amount Mayor Durkan's campaign reported spending on Facebook ads.


The amount spent on Facebook ads by the losing campaign of Seattle City Council candidate Jon Grant, according to Facebook's spreadsheet.


The actual amount Grant's campaign reported spending on Facebook ads.


The number of times Facebook's spreadsheet says "Spend Data Unavailable" for a particular campaign.

For example, the never-off-the-ground 2017 campaign of former mayor Ed Murray was marked by Facebook as "Spend Data Unavailable."


The actual amount spent on Facebook ads by Murray's never-off-the-ground campaign in 2017, according to campaign disclosures.


The amount spent on Facebook ads by former mayor Mike McGinn during his losing 2017 campaign for mayor, according to Facebook's spreadsheet.

This is actually quite close to the figure I got by adding up the 2017 Facebook ad spends reported by McGinn in his campaign disclosures: $24,439.41


The amount former mayor Mike McGinn reported spending on Facebook ads back in 2013, during his other losing campaign for mayor.

More than $150,000

The amount Seattle's major 2017 campaigns reported spending on Google ads.

Barnett has told Google it must comply with Seattle's election transparency law, too. In response, the company told him it is "working diligently to complete a production of information it has identified as responsive... 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."

I'll be watching to see if Google's "production of information" matches the amount Seattle's major 2017 campaigns reported spending on ads through Google, DoubeClick (owned by Google), and YouTube (also owned by Google).

It's also quite possible that the above $150,000 figure will rise as I get clarity about where 2017's "undifferentiated digital ad buys" went.


The number of days that have passed since I showed up at Facebook's Seattle offices and politely asked the company to comply with Seattle's law by giving me data on all Facebook ads targeting this city's 2017 municipal elections.


The number of responsive documents Facebook has sent me.

This post has been updated to correct an earlier error regarding "undifferentiated digital ad buys." In addition, a reference to a discrepancy involving Facebook ads purchased by the campaign of Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes has been deleted. In March 2018, a month after this post was published, the political consulting firm that ran Holmes's 2017 re-election campaign revealed that it had made a reporting error regarding his Facebook ads. It appears that the consulting firm's reporting error, and not a Facebook error, led to the discrepancy in the case of those particular Facebook ads. However, The Case of the City Attorney's Google Ads—that's another story.