Eight months ago, Facebook announced it was banning all political ads targeting local elections in Washington state.
Four months ago, after it became clear the company was still selling such ads, Facebook told state election regulators that it was working to improve enforcement of its ban.
Yet as of today, Facebook has sold hundreds of local political ads targeting this state's elections since the beginning of 2019, all in violation of its own ban—including well over $50,000 worth of recent ads targeting current city council races in Seattle.
Less than two weeks out from statewide primary elections, with ballots already mailed and campaigns in the final primary stretch, election regulators in Seattle and Olympia say Facebook's inability to enforce its own ad rules—rules that Facebook itself implemented in an attempt to avoid tough political ad disclosure requirements—has created a climate of general bafflement, as well as a number of complaints.
"What is going on at Facebook headquarters?” asked Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. "I mean, they’ve enunciated this as a policy, but it doesn’t appear that there’s any resources being devoted to enforcing the policy."
Facebook has not responded to questions sent yesterday by The Stranger regarding the political ads it's selling and the concerns of Washington state regulators.
"A Huge Problem"
“Any time you have a competitive process where some parties are essentially punished for following what they believe to be the rules, and others who are not following the rules who are benefitting, that’s a huge problem," Barnett continued. “To me, it just shows the unworkability of Facebook’s policy. I don’t know what Facebook is doing."
Kim Bradford, spokesperson for the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, said the PDC has received numerous questions about what's going on.
“We certainly are hearing a lot of confusion," Bradford said, "both from campaigns and members of the general public about, ‘Well, I thought Facebook ads were illegal. Why is this candidate or group advertising on Facebook?’”
It is not illegal for a campaign in Washington state to purchase political ads on Facebook.
It's just against Facebook's policies.
One thing that definitely is illegal: failing to comply with Washington state's strict election disclosure laws when you buy or sell election advertising.
Facebook and Google were accused of exactly this type of failure last year by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who sued the companies in state court after The Stranger demonstrated that both Facebook and Google were refusing to comply with longstanding political ad transparency regulations.
Facebook and Google ultimately paid the State of Washington $455,000 to settle Ferguson's suit without any admissions of guilt.
Then, as the PDC clarified and tightened transparency requirements for online political ads at the start of 2019, Facebook announced it was simply banning all local political ads in Washington state. (Google had announced a similar ban on Washington state political ads six months earlier, in June of 2018.)
If Facebook had successfully implemented its ban, it could have avoided having to comply with current transparency requirements, which mandate the disclosure of political ad details that can't be found in Facebook's online political ad archive—basic, important details such as the name and address of the actual person or persons behind an ad (not just the name of a Facebook page associated with an ad, which is what the Facebook archive currently provides) and the exact amount paid for every ad (rather than just a broad range for possible ad spending, which is what the Facebook archive currently offers).
Radio stations, television stations, and newspapers in Washington state have been complying with similar ad disclosure requirements for decades.
But, Bradford said, "It’s clear to the PDC that Facebook has not been able to get a handle on being able to prohibit all of these ads, as it says it intends to do." And if Facebook is selling local political ads in Washington, the PDC has made clear the company needs to provide the required disclosures about each ad to "any person" who asks.
Facebook's online archive doesn't do that. Bradford said the archive "does not appear to us to meet all the requirements of the regulations," although "it is a good step in that direction."
The agency is currently investigating Facebook for failing to provide all legally required information to The Stranger regarding 25 local political ads Facebook sold, in violation of its own ban, in the first months of this year. It's also investigating Google for a similar failure.
In response, the companies have made an interesting argument: Because they say they ban local political ads in Washington state, when they end up selling such ads they don't have to make disclosures about them—because, after all, they say they ban them.
Facebook and Google also claim that federal law makes them immune from Washington state's efforts to regulate its own elections.
The still-unfolding PDC investigations of Facebook and Google should help reveal whether the agency has been persuaded by the tech giants' attempts to position themselves as beyond the reach of Washington state law.
In the meantime, the local Facebook ads scroll on.
In the case of Seattle's current elections, active Facebook ads are now potentially gathering tens of thousands of impressions as they try to influence the outcome of city council district races in which actual voter turnout is likely to be in the low tens of thousands for each council district.
Back in 2015, the last time similar elections were held, primary election turnout ranged between just 13,000 voters and 21,000 voters, depending on the Seattle district.
Given the low turnout expectations, and with Seattle City Council races frequently hinging on just a few thousand votes, all these supposedly banned Facebook ads could end up being a significant factor in deciding which candidates make it through to the general election.
"We're Going to Buy Ads on Whatever Platform's Going to Sell Them to Us"
Political ad buyers, for their part, say that if Facebook is selling ads, they're going to buy them.
Adam Glickman, secretary/treasurer for a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union, was blunt about why his union's political action committee recently bought $3,000 in Facebook ads to benefit Lisa Herbold in West Seattle's District 1 and Tammy Morales in South Seattle's District 2.
"I've seen plenty of ads on my Facebook feed," Glickman said, noting that a number of other Seattle campaigns have been buying them. "As a purchaser of ads, we’re going to buy ads on whatever platform’s going to sell them to us where we can reach voters. If they say no, that’s fine and we’ll go elsewhere. If they say yes, then that’s great, it’s a good way to reach voters, and we’re doing all the reporting we have to do, and it’s on them to do the reporting they have to do.
“We’re not the ones with the problem here," Glickman continued. "We’re just trying to reach voters.”
Still, Glickman agreed that "it is certainly a little bit weird and confusing” to have Facebook saying it bans local political ads in Washington state while it's simultaneously selling them to his union's PAC and many other local buyers.
Glickman also noted that some local campaigns have been blocked from buying Facebook ads, and the company's process for determining who gets blocked and who doesn't "definitely seems potentially arbitrary."
In the scheme of things, Glickman's PAC is a relatively small player. Much more money is being spent on local Facebook ads by a mysterious, newly formed PAC called "Moms for Seattle," which appears to be the biggest recent buyer of Facebook ads targeting Seattle's city council elections.
Moms for Seattle has reported $48,000 in recent Facebook ad buys that will be split evenly to help Pat Murakami in District 3 (Montlake, Madison Valley, and the Central District); Alex Pedersen in District 4 (the University District and Wedgewood); Heidi Wills in District 6 (Ballard and Fremont); and Michael George in District 7 (Downtown Seattle and Magnolia).
Representatives of Moms for Seattle did not respond to The Stranger's request for an interview.
Unite Here!, another union-funded PAC, is spending $9,300 on Facebook ads to support Andrew Lewis in District 7. That union's director of strategic affairs, Stefan Moritz, did not respond to a request for comment.
Big Money, Small Number of Voters
The Facebook campaigns in District 7 offer a good example of how much impact these supposedly banned ads could have on determining which candidates move out of the top-two August primary and onto the November ballot.
The total Unite Here! ad spend on behalf of Andrew Lewis is massive for a Seattle City Council district race: nearly $150,000 in Facebook, Google, newspaper, and television ads.
In 2015, when Council Member Sally Bagshaw was running for re-election in District 7 against two uninspiring challengers, only about 16,500 people voted in the D7 primary.
This year, with Bagshaw retiring and 10 people running in an exciting race for an open seat, perhaps 25,000 people will vote in D7.
Start splitting up that number of voters among 10 different candidates and you can quickly see how $9,300 in well-targeted Facebook ads paid for by Unite Here!—plus $580 in Unite Here! Google video ads—could end up being key to an Andrew Lewis victory.
Same for the $12,000 in Facebook ads that Moms for Seattle is buying to support Michael George.
Jason Williams, a Microsoft employee who's one of the other major candidates running in D7, declined to comment on other people's campaign strategies, but said that he's personally taking a principled stand against Facebook and Google ads.
“I’ve instructed my team not to buy ads on Facebook or Google until those platforms can demonstrate that they can comply with the campaign disclosure laws," Williams said.
He added that he's uncomfortable with using the platforms right now because of their role in creating "an existential crisis in terms of fake news and misinformation" in this country, and that he's surprised the tech behemoths can't figure out how to block local political ads in Washington state.
“These are highly sophisticated companies, Facebook and Google," Williams said. "And they’ve demonstrated time and time again that they have the capabilities to police different kinds of content… And so I am a little incredulous at the fact that despite their capabilities to police other kinds of speech, that on this particular issue—when it comes to campaign ads—they’ve not been able to deliver…. How much effort are they actually putting forward?
"They should be held accountable," Williams concluded.
Over in District 4, city council candidate Shaun Scott said the recent Facebook ad buys by large PACs—including Facebook ads supporting his D4 opponent, Alex Pedersen—are a sign that certain candidates lack genuine virality and are out of synch with Seattle's real priorities.
"Big corporate interests in Seattle spend money on social media ad buys for one reason: their candidates aren’t exciting, compelling, or progressive enough for their content to have a significant organic reach in a liberal city like Seattle," Scott said. "So rather than fund candidates who actually represent the material interests of working families and vulnerable communities, they try to manufacture popularity by burning money on Facebook."
The Case of the Disappearing CASE ads
Yet another PAC that's recently purchased Facebook ads aimed at Seattle City Council races is "Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy," aka CASE.
It's funded by major Seattle-based businesses such as Amazon and Vulcan, and it's run by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
According to the PAC's disclosures to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, CASE has spent a bit over $250 on Facebook ads.
That's not a lot, but what's happened with those CASE ads is interesting.
Back in June, a Facebook page associated with the Chamber began paying for ads promoting CASE's preferred city council candidates. A number of Stranger readers saw these ads in their Facebook feeds, noted that the ads should be banned by Facebook, and asked The Stranger to figure out what was going on.
The CASE ads briefly appeared in Facebook's online ad archive—and stayed there long enough for The Stranger to get screenshots of them—and then they mysteriously disappeared.
The same thing happened with a CASE ad that went up on Monday. Facebook users who click on the ad are steered toward information on, and endorsements for, CASE's preferred candidates. At midday on Tuesday, this CASE ad was viewable in Facebook's online ad archive. By later on Tuesday afternoon, the ad had disappeared. And then on Wednesday morning, it was back again—but lacking even the limited disclosure information that Facebook's archive normally provides for political ads.
Meanwhile, the CASE ads from June still do not appear in Facebook's archive.
CASE and the Chamber did not respond to requests for comment on their Facebook ad campaign, and Facebook spokesperson Devon Kearns told The Stranger by e-mail: "With any new undertaking we're committed to taking feedback, and learning and improving our tools and policy to make them more useful. We know it will be difficult to find every political ad, but we are focused on getting better."
The bugginess of the Facebook ad archive is somewhat similar to what The Wall Street Journal recently found regarding Google's political ad archive.
Google's archive doesn't even offer information on local ads like those targeting Washington state's elections; it only discloses information on political ads in federal races. But when it comes to those federal ads, the Journal found that "the search giant's archive of political ads is fraught with errors and delays" and "doesn't always record political ads bought with Google's ad tools."
All of which points at an ongoing problem, both here in Washington state and elsewhere:
If digital platforms like Facebook and Google are free to make their own rules about political ads, and are also free to incompletely enforce those rules, and they also make their own rules about what to disclose when it comes to the political ads they sell, and they're free to not always follow their own disclosure rules, then who's really in control of regulating our elections?