When candidate Ari Hoffman decided to start the new year by purchasing more Facebook ads for his Seattle City Council run, he was fully aware that Facebook had banned such ads in Washington State.
Hoffman also knew a bit about the settlement Facebook reached last year with Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who'd sued both Facebook and Google over their failures to comply with this state's nation-leading requirements for transparency in online political ads.
It was right after the settlement with Ferguson that Facebook announced a new policy that, if adhered to, could prevent the tech giant from facing any new required disclosures in Washington. The policy declared that effective December 31, 2018, Facebook would simply no longer accept "ads that relate to Washington's state or local elected officials, candidates, elections or ballot initiatives."
But throughout January and into this month, Hoffman bought Facebook ads anyway. He figured that since he's made it abundantly clear to Facebook he's running for office in Seattle, the company can just cancel his ads if it has any concerns. "If Facebook is checking it," Hoffman said, "they should be the one to shut it down.”
In all, Hoffman, who hopes to win the open council seat in south Seattle's District 2, has purchased 11 campaign ads on Facebook since the company's ban went into effect, including two that were live through this morning. He said he's paid $700 - $800 for them.
Hoffman's ads are hardly unique. They're among more than two dozen local political ads from four different Seattle City Council candidates—and one local ballot measure supporter—that have, according to Facebook's own political ad archive, run since January 1 in apparent violation of Facebook's new policy.
After being alerted to these ads on Monday, a Facebook spokesperson asked to see screenshots. The Stranger sent screenshots, along with questions, but Facebook has not yet responded.
Logan Bowers, who's trying to unseat incumbent Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant in District 3, said that like Hoffman he was aware of Facebook's local ad ban—and thus made very clear to Facebook that he's running a Seattle campaign.
“I indicated it was a political ad," Bowers said, "I did a verification step with Facebook and made the disclosures, so everything was transparent when I placed the ad. It’s on Facebook to decide whether they want to follow through and block all local political ads."
"Facebook has a choice to make"
If Facebook doesn't block the kinds of ads it says are banned in Washington State, Bowers pointed out, the company has other options.
“Facebook has a choice to make," Bowers said. "They can either decline to run the ad or they can comply with Washington State's disclosure rules. That’s the choice that they have.”
According to the Facebook ad archive, Bowers has purchased two Facebook ads since the beginning of the year. During the same period, over in north Seattle's District 4, the archive shows council candidate Ethan Hunter has purchased a total of seven ads.
When contacted by The Stranger on Monday morning, Hunter said he knew about Facebook's local ad ban and that "all the Facebook ads bought by my campaign staff have been approved by Facebook." After that, he declined to answer any other questions, saying only, "I have no further comment at this time."
Later in the day on Monday, Hunter posted a statement on his campaign Facebook page saying, "The simple fact is that they are allowing local election ads to be run on their platform as of today (02/11/2019)."
Hunter promised to be fully transparent about the amount he's paying for his Facebook ads and to share information on each ad's demographic targeting. He noted that "after the 2016 election, people around the country and across the globe were shocked at the complexity and scope of foreign meddling in U.S. elections through Facebook’s advertising platform." Some of that Russian meddling relied on the type of secret demographic ad targeting that Hunter is vowing to disclose when it comes to his own ads.
But under Washington State law, this type of information should also be disclosed by Facebook.
While Congress has done nothing to bring transparency to federal online election ads since the Russian interference operations in 2016, this state, because of a groundbreaking law approved by voters in 1972, requires that all sellers of local political ads—from radio stations to newspapers and digital platforms—reveal information on the funding and reach of those ads.
For digital platforms specifically, that means revealing, among other things:
• The name and address of the ad's purchaser ("So that the public can know who paid for the advertising," as current regulations say)
• The ad's total cost
• The total number of impressions the ad received
• And "a description of the demographic information (e.g., age, gender, race, location, etc.) of the audiences targeted and reached, to the extent such information is collected by the commercial advertiser as part of its regular course of business."
Facebook does not currently disclose all of this information through its political ad archive, as Ferguson made clear last year, which may be why the company decided to ban local political ads from Washington State altogether.
Now, with Facebook's failure to actually stop selling local political ads in Washington, the company finds itself on a path similar to that of Google, which banned Washington State political ads last summer but has since sold more than $13,000 worth.
"I guess it's back to knocking on doors"
Kate Martin, who's trying to unseat Seattle City Council Member Mike O'Brien in the Ballard area's District 4, said that unlike Hoffman, Bowers, and Hunter, she was not aware of Facebook's ban.
But Martin certainly remembers how much effort it took to get herself approved for purchasing political ads on Facebook—a process that the company made much more rigorous after Russians used Facebook to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election.
"It took me about two months to jump through the hoops that they had," Martin said. "I wasn’t able to start a campaign Facebook page until I supplied them a bunch of documents, including my driver’s license, my registration of my political committee—I think there were five things I had to provide." She received a postcard in the mail with a verification code she had to type in online. She talked to Facebook technical support.
All of this should have made it obvious to Facebook that Martin was running a local campaign in Washington State. Instead, Facebook has sold Martin seven political ads since January 1, which she says cost her around $150. Facebook also offered her suggestions for getting more attention with her ads, such as using pictures.
"Maybe they’re just telling me, 'You’re not going to have luck with this unless you have a kitten video,' or whatever,” Martin said.
She noted that she appreciates being able to run Facebook ads, though she's also alarmed by the "fake this and fake that" on Facebook, as well as "all the hate that's been generated by people they've allowed to run ads."
So Martin firmly believes that Facebook should have to follow Washington State's political ad transparency law.
(Hoffman and Bowers agree. Hunter did not directly address that issue in his statement but noted that Facebook has at times expressed a belief that it's immune from Washington State law.)
If Facebook blocks her from buying political ads going forward, Martin asked at one point, "How will I have a campaign?" But in the next beat she answered her own question: "I guess it’s back to knocking on doors."
“Very low budget kind of stuff"
Martin's Facebook campaign has been "very low budget kind of stuff," she said, and broadly speaking the same is true for all the other local campaigns that have been able to purchase Facebook ads since January 1.
Chandra Hampson, president of the Seattle Council PTSA, spent all of about $15 on a Facebook ad urging local voters to support two Seattle education funding levies that will be approved or rejected when polls close today.
She "vaguely" remembered hearing something about Facebook changing its rules on local political ads in Washington, but wasn't thinking about it when she bought her Facebook ad. And, Hampson noted, "they approved it and took my money anyway."
Given the small sums involved, though, and Facebook's massive valuation—currently more than $470 billion—these ad sales were likely not about the money.
Facebook became as valuable as it is by merging massive numbers of automated ad sales with massive amounts of personal data about its users. This allows Facebook ad clients such as Hampson to target, as Hampson did, well-educated adults in Seattle who are politically engaged and philanthropically minded. Or, as Hoffman did, adults in District 2 zip codes who are interested in Judaism (for a campaign yarmulke give-away ad) or Chinese cultural matters (for a recent ad wishing people a happy Chinese New Year).
If you automate an enticing process like that on a global scale, you can sell a whole lot of ads to people who are peddling things all over the planet.
But then it also becomes hard to stop selling ads in just one state in America when it comes to one particular matter: local elections.
UPDATE: Shortly after this story was published, Facebook responded to The Stranger's questions.
"We have taken steps to address new rules and stopped accepting ads that relate to state and local candidates or elected officials from Washington State or state ballot measures," said Facebook spokesperson Devon Kearns. "We have re-reviewed these ads and rejected them. They will remain in the archive as part of our overall effort to be transparent about ads related to politics and issues that run on Facebook."
Kearns added: "We will be working to make sure similar ads are unable to run in the future."