Facebooks second attempt at following Seattles disclosure law. It required a magnifying glass to read, even when printed on 11 x 17 paper.
Also, Facebook's disclosures need to be more user-friendly. The company's second attempt at following Seattle election law required a magnifying glass to read—even when printed on 11 x 17 paper. ES

It's been well over three months since the City of Seattle told Facebook to hand over data on political ads that targeted this city's 2017 municipal elections.

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After three different responses from Facebook, the company still isn't in compliance with a unique Seattle law that requires Facebook to release each local political ad's cost, as well as the "exact nature and extent" of the ad services Facebook provided to those seeking to influence Seattle voters.

Before we get into exactly what Seattle Ethics and Elections Director Wayne Barnett told Facebook yesterday, let's review what Facebook has—and hasn't—disclosed so far.

Version one of Facebook's response came in early February, and it was so glaringly insufficient that Barnett declared Facebook had failed to follow the law.

"We gave Facebook ample time to comply," Barnett said back on February 5, "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."

Version two arrived in early March and was 84 pages long, rather than two pages long. That seemed promising.

But V2 was exceedingly difficult to read.

When printed out on 11 x 17 paper it required a magnifying glass to peruse.

Stranger Art Director and typography guru Corianton Hale took a look at the 11 x 17 printout of Facebook Disclosure V2 and declared it to have been delivered in a roughly 3.5 font size. The default font size in Microsoft Word, for comparison, is 12.

Here, in visual form, is our full Facebook V2 font size investigation:

Text from Facebooks V2 disclosure is on the left, different tiny font sizes are on the right.
Text from Facebook's V2 disclosure on the left, different tiny font sizes on the right. ES


Version three (scroll to end for link) arrived on March 14 and, at Barnett's request, addressed the readability problem.

But it also contained numerous other problems that have plagued Facebook's disclosures from the start. One of those recurring problems is accuracy.

The numbers in Facebook's initial disclosure to the City of Seattle just didn't add up. To take only one example, the amount Facebook said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan's campaign had spent on Facebook ads in 2017 was less than half of what Durkan's campaign actually reported spending on Facebook ads.

When the company made its second and third attempts at disclosure, it switched to providing a dollar "range" for each ad buy. But that created its own accuracy problems.

For example, Facebook now puts the Durkan campaign's 2017 Facebook ad spending at between about $5,000 and $30,000. That's quite a range and, as Barnett told Facebook yesterday, is "too broad to provide campaign watchers useful or meaningful information."

The company needs to drop the "range" method, Barnett said, because in his reading of Seattle law, Facebook is required to report the actual dollar amount it received for each ad.

Barnett asked Facebook to send over a fourth, more accurate disclosure by April 23.

He also noted that it shouldn't take the company too much time to turn over the actual dollar amounts spent on Facebook ads targeting Seattle elections in 2017, "since Facebook must’ve had numbers that dictated the range it reported."

Barnett added: "I hope you will provide the information in as user-friendly a format as possible."

Beyond this current issue, all three of Facebook's disclosure attempts have contained other problems that cause them to fall short of disclosing the "exact nature and extent of the advertising services rendered," as required by Seattle law.

I'll be getting into the additional problems with Facebook's latest disclosure, V3, in an upcoming post.


UPDATE, 2:30 pm: In an e-mail to Barnett, Facebook lawyer Ben Stafford of Perkins Coie pointed back to V1, the company's original, very flawed, two-page-long disclosure.

"To our understanding," Stafford wrote, "that first production provided to the SEEC the consideration received for the advertising services provided to each committee." ("Consideration," in this context, meaning payment.)

Stafford offered a new copy (.PDF) of that original, two-page disclosure, updated, he said, to correct a "typographical error."

Because of that error, the current mayor's election campaign, "Jenny Durkan for Seattle," and an Independent Expenditure group, "People for Jenny Durkan," were both recorded as spending the same amount on Facebook ads: $11,906. Facebook meant to say that only the "Jenny Durkan for Seattle" campaign spent $11,906.

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However, as noted above, that figure—$11,906—is less than half of what Durkan's campaign actually reported spending on Facebook ads.

This is one of the major problems with Facebook's V1 disclosure: it gave actual dollar amounts for various ad spends, but a number of those dollar amounts are contradicted by publicly available campaign finance disclosures filed with the Ethics and Elections Commission.

This problem continues with the new figure Facebook has now provided for "People for Jenny Durkan"—$34,997.

That's $7,000 less than what "People for Jenny Durkan" actually reported spending on Facebook ads.

These are not isolated problems with Facebook's initial, two-page spreadsheet. I'll have more on all this, as well, in an upcoming post.