Thanks to Facebook's new "archive of ads with political content," we have a sense of the answer to this question. But while the archive is an important first step in bringing greater transparency to online political ads nationwide, it has some serious shortcomings. It's also failing to provide information that local regulators say must be disclosed under unique Seattle and Washington State transparency laws.
First, here's what the Facebook archive tells us about the "No Tax on Jobs" campaign's online agenda:
• With more than $350,000 in pledges from businesses like Amazon, Starbucks, and Vulcan, the campaign has wasted no time in using Facebook to try to encourage Seattle voters to sign the petition to put a repeal referendum before voters this fall.
• One of the most common phrases in this digital campaign, which has been running since May 23: "It's time to fight back."
• Of the 11 Facebook ads the "No Tax on Jobs" campaign has paid for so far, five of them link to this "Time to fight back" op-ed published in The Seattle Times by conservative radio personality John Carlson.
That's all useful to know. But here's what Facebook is not disclosing about the "No Tax on Jobs" online political ad campaign:
• Which Seattleites are being targeted? Seattle Ethics and Elections Director Wayne Barnett has said that under local transparency law, Facebook should be disclosing information on the "intended and actual audiences" for online political ads.
But Facebook's new political ad archive doesn't offer any clear information on the intended (meaning: targeted) audiences for any political ads.
Instead, Facebook is offering only a few select data points on the audience each ad ultimately reached. Here, for example, is the "audience breakdown" Facebook offers for one of the "No Tax on Jobs" ads:
While it's interesting to know that this "time to fight back" ad reached far more men than women, it would be more interesting to know whether the ad was specifically targeted at, say, Seattle men.
Other ads in the "No Tax on Jobs" campaign feature a smiling woman handing out a petition signature form—and at least one of those ads, according to the Facebook archive, appears to have been seen by a lot more women. So is the campaign targeting a "fight back" message at Seattle men and a smiling woman image at Seattle women? We don't know.
More important, is the "No Tax on Jobs" campaign being targeted at certain Seattle neighborhoods, and at certain demographics within those neighborhoods (whether through racial, economic, or other targeting categories)?
We don't know.
Although I've demonstrated that in 2017, a candidate for Seattle City Attorney used Facebook to target a misleading claim about property crime at specific Seattle neighborhoods—and at specific voters within those neighborhoods—the new Facebook archive doesn't allow us to see whether these "No Tax on Jobs" ads may be using a similar narrow-targeting strategy.
For example, when it comes to targeting based on geography, all the Facebook archive tells us is that the "No Tax on Jobs" campaign's ads have been seen by people in Washington State.
Since the political issue in question is a Seattle referendum that only Seattle voters will get to weigh in on, knowing that people in Washington State have seen these ads doesn't tell us much.
• How much is being spent on these ads? Barnett, the director of Seattle Ethics and Elections, has said that Facebook and other digital platforms need to be disclosing the exact amount they've been paid for local political ads—"not a range."
But Facebook's archive only offers a range for spending on the "No Tax on Jobs" campaign's ads.
According to that range, the campaign has spent somewhere between $0 and $1,000 on ads to influence the referendum effort since May 23. Again, that's interesting information. But it would be more interesting, and useful, for Facebook to be disclosing the exact amount spent—as Barnett has said the company should be doing.
• How many people, in total, have seen these ads? In an emergency rule passed earlier this month and set to take effect June 7, the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission said that Facebook and other digital platforms must reveal "the total number of impressions" generated by political advertisements.
But Facebook's archive only offers a range for impressions received by the "No Tax on Jobs" campaign's ads.
According to that range, these ads have received somewhere between 1,000 and 15,000 impressions. This is also interesting information. But more interesting and useful would be for Facebook to disclose the total number of impressions—as the state commissions says it needs to be doing by June 7.
• Other things the Facebook archive is failing to do: Seattle and Washington State laws require Facebook and other digital platforms to disclose "the names and addresses of persons from whom [they] accepted political advertising."
But the Facebook archive only discloses that these ads were "Paid for by the No Tax on Jobs PAC."
In this case, it's easy to go to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission web site and find contact information for the PAC. However, it's also easy to imagine a scenario in which "persons" buy political ads on Facbook to influence Seattle elections but try to obscure their identities. In such situations, it would be important for Facebook to follow local law and disclose information about the actual individual who purchased the ads.
Seattle and Washington State laws also require Facebook and other digital platforms to disclose "the consideration and the manner of paying that consideration" when it comes to political ad purchases—meaning, exactly how the ad was paid for and how much was paid.
As mentioned, Facbeook's archive is only providing a range for spending on the "No Tax on Jobs" campaign's ads. In addition, the archive isn't providing any information at all on "the manner" of payment. (For example, cash or credit? Wire transfer or check?) Again, this may not be an important issue in this particular online influence campaign but it's easy to imagine instances in which this would be important information for the public to have.
Finally, Facebook's political ad archive is, according to the company's own statements, incomplete. (The day the archive launched, according to ProPublica, it was missing an ad about Washington State Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers.) Also, the archive is only available to Facebook members. But Seattle and Washington State laws clearly state that information on local political ad purchases must be complete and "open for public inspection."
Offering an incomplete archive that restricts access to Facebook members does not seem to be in line with these requirements.
On Tuesday, in an attempt to get more information, I formally requested that Facebook give me all the data on the "No Tax on Jobs" campaign's political ads that Facebook is legally required to disclose under Seattle and Washington State laws.
In response, Andy Stone, a spokesperson for Facebook, referred me to the company's new political ad archive.
I shared with Stone the above concerns about the archive's limitations and asked whether Facebook believes its new political ad archive complies with existing Seattle and Washington State laws. I haven't received a response, but will report back if I do.
UPDATE: In an e-mail sent this afternoon, Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone pointed me to a transcript of the company's May 24 conference call with reporters regarding the new political ad archive. (I'd already listened to the call here.)
Stone flagged a statement about the archive from Rob Leathern, the product director for Facebook's ad team.
“We think these new features set a new standard for transparency in digital advertising," Leathern said, "and they are a key part of our broader elections integrity work.”
It's certainly true that Facebook has set a new standard for itself with the launch of its political ad archive. But the question remains: Does Facebook believe its new political ad archive complies with existing Seattle and Washington State laws?
In his e-mail, Stone did not answer that question.