There's no shortage of important takeaways from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's recent indictments, but here's one that's both obvious and highly relevant to the City of Seattle's current standoff with Facebook: transparency in online political advertising matters.
Further, as Facebook's own vice president for advertising has bragged, the Mueller indictments were made possible in part because Facebook "shared Russian ads with Congress, Mueller and the American people to help the public understand how the Russians abused our system."
A New York Times fact check helpfully pointed out that, actually, "Facebook did not directly share the ads with the American people"—it was Congress that did that, and only selectively. But who can argue with the broad goal of sharing online political ad details with the public so that we can understand who's trying to manipulate our beliefs and our votes, and how?
That kind of enhanced understanding is the aim behind all kinds of election transparency laws in this country, and while those laws generally have not caught up to the digital age, it turns out that here in Seattle, and in Washington State as a whole, there are laws already on the books that mandate detailed disclosures when it comes to political ads purchased on digital platforms.
The problem is that Facebook is currently failing to comply with our local law—to the extent that the head of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission is now in discussions with the Seattle City Attorney's office about "next steps."
To be clear, no one is suggesting that Russian propagandists tried to influence the specific Seattle elections that Facebook was asked to disclose information about months ago—the 2017 municipal elections for mayor, city council, and city attorney.
But consider this:
According to Facebook, the Russian influence operation targeting the 2016 US presidential election spent a total of $100,000 on political ads.
For that investment, they were able to reach 10 million Facebook users.
When it comes to the 2017 Seattle municipal elections, campaigns have already disclosed spending more than $300,000 on Facebook ads—and the grand total is likely to have been considerably higher.
There are only 435,662 registered voters in Seattle.
So if the Russians reached 10 million Americans with $100,000 in Facebook ads, imagine what an impression $300,000 in Facebook ads could have made on the much smaller voting population of Seattle.
With this in mind, I reached out to Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone yesterday to ask whether the company will be reevaluating its level of political ad disclosure in Seattle, given both the local law and the important role Facebook's political ad disclosures just played in the Mueller indictments. Stone did not reply.