More than three months ago, The Stranger asked Facebook for all the information it's legally required to disclose about political ads that were purchased to influence this spring's raging fight over the Seattle "Amazon Tax."
Since then, election officials in Seattle and Olympia have made clear to Facebook that it needs to turn over the data. But despite these demands, the company still hasn't sent The Stranger anything—even though recent communications between Facebook and the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission make clear the company is able to provide the data in question.
Facebook is already facing a lawsuit from Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson over an alleged decade of failure to comply with state disclosure laws when it comes to online political ads.
That lawsuit cited Stranger reporting on Facebook's failure to disclose Seattle political ad data from 2017, as well an investigation by the AG's office.
As that lawsuit proceeds—with the two sides currently arguing over whether Facebook was correct to move the lawsuit to federal court—the company's new failure to share political ad data from 2018 offers a reminder of what's at stake.
Back in July, the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission sent a letter to Facebook saying it was aware of The Stranger's request for 2018 political ad data and urging the company to respond.
The commission also reminded Facebook that under state law, such information must be shared with the public "promptly upon request."
Then, on August 1, Wayne Barnett, the director of Seattle's Ethics and Elections Commission, sent Facebook his own letter.
Aware that the company still wasn't complying with The Stranger's request, Barnett demanded that Facebook give him data on ads relating to the Seattle "Amazon Tax"—while simultaneously reminding Facebook that under city law, such information must be "provided in the first place to the public."
Even so, Facebook still has not provided the Stranger with "Amazon Tax" ad details.
However, the company recently shared "Amazon Tax" ad details with Barnett.
Through a public records request, The Stranger received a copy of a Sept. 7 e-mail in which Facebook lawyer Ben Stafford provided Barnett with specific data on political ad purchases by the "No Tax on Jobs" campaign, which opposed Seattle's "Amazon Tax."
When The Stranger requested similar data back on May 29, Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone responded by pointing me to the company's relatively new archive of political ads. "I would encourage you to visit the archive to access the information you’re seeking," Stone wrote at the time.
The problem is that Facebook's political ad archive doesn't offer the specific information I'm seeking—specific information that state laws say the company must provide to the public.
For example, the Facebook archive only offers a range for the amount spent on any individual political ad. But state and city laws require the company to provide the exact amount spent on political ads.
I made Stone aware of this, but Facebook never sent me the exact ad spend information I'd requested.
Does the company even have such information handy?
Yes, it does.
In that Sept. 7 e-mail to Barnett, Facebook's lawyer provided exact Facebook ad spend data for the "No Tax on Jobs" campaign: $374.81.
While this is a relatively piddling amount compared to the millions of dollars that are regularly spent on Facebook ads by national political campaigns, it's important information for the public to have. (Just as it would be important for the public to know the exact amount spent, rather than a range, if the amount spent were in the millions.)
For one very clear example of why it's important for Facebook to disclose exact ad spend data, take the "No Tax on Jobs" campaign's initial report of how much it spent on Facebook ads: $1,250.
That's a lot more than $374.81.
Like, more than three times more.
If one looks at the spending range data available on the Facebook political ad archive, that $1,250 figure seems like it could be correct.
In fact, it was very wrong and a leader of the "No Tax on Jobs" campaign now believes the campaign got scammed by a sub-vendor tasked with purchasing its Facebook and Twitter ads.
The "No Tax on Jobs" campaign recently revised its reporting to city and state officials and the sub-vendor in question has now promised to refund all the money it supposedly spent on Twitter ads (no Twitter ads were ever actually purchased), as well as all but $374.81 of the money that was supposedly spent on Facebook ads (since only $374.81 in Facebook ads were actually purchased).
Disclosure to The Stranger by Twitter helped bring this problem to light.
In contrast, Facebook's failure to disclose exact ad spend data to The Stranger made it more difficult to bring this problem to light.
There are several other problems with Facebook's political ad archive—including that it's not available to the public, only Facebook members. Perhaps these problems will be remedied as Attorney General Ferguson's suit against Facebook moves forward.
As Ferguson's office wrote in a recent filing, "Washington voters have long expected transparency in their campaigns and elections." And as Ferguson told The Stranger back in June, "What's happening now is not legal... Not even close."