Nearly $480,000 in digital ad spending aimed at Seattles elections has been reported for October. What all those ads look like is a mystery.
Nearly $480,000 in digital ad spending aimed at Seattle's elections has been reported for October. What all those ads look like is a mystery. Hiroshi Watanabe / Getty Images
A huge wave of digital ads is set to crash into Seattle's city council races in the final stretch of the campaign, with candidates and well-funded Super PACs reporting nearly $480,000 in online political ad purchases in October alone.

Some of these digital ads are set to run on Facebook and Google, despite both companies claiming, as David Gutman of The Seattle Times noted today, that they don't sell local political ads in Washington state anymore. Other digital ads targeting Seattle's elections are set to run on Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) and Twitter, and still others appear likely to run on different, as-yet-unspecified online platforms.

But if you want to know what all these ads look like, and you're not one of the people being digitally targeted by them, good luck.

Unlike local television stations, radio stations, and newspapers, Facebook and Google have refused to comply with long-standing Washington state transparency laws that require them to disclose, within 24 hours of each local political ad's distribution, a significant amount of information about the ad itself, including what it cost, how it was targeted, and what it looks like.

This refusal, combined with the tech giants' continued sales of local political ads in Washington state, has created a "huge problem," according to local election regulators.

Earlier this month, the Washington State Public Disclosure commission charged Facebook with multiple violations of state campaign finance law for failing to properly disclose digital ad data requested by The Stranger back in February. Google is currently under PDC investigation for a similar failure.

Yet the platforms, which announced in 2018 that they'd no longer sell local political ads here because of this state's strict transparency laws, are still selling plenty, recent disclosures show.

The Seattle Firefighters PAC, for example, has reported $11,000 in October Facebook ad spending in filings with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

Those Facebook ads are aimed at supporting Seattle City Council candidates Mark Solomon (in District 2), Egan Orion (in District 3), Alex Pedersen (in District 4), Debora Juarez (in District 5), and Heidi Wills (in District 6). That's the same slate of candidates backed by the Amazon-funded Seattle Chamber of Commerce PAC.

The Seattle Firefighters also reported spending $11,000 on Instagram; $33,700 on Google; and $1,000 on Twitter—all to support that same slate of candidates.

For a sense of how many eyeballs the Firefighters could be putting their digital ads in front of, consider the case of a February special election in Spokane. There, a campaign was able to purchase $4,665 in supposedly banned Google ads for its winning effort. As part of the PDC's investigation of Google's local ad practices, the agency discovered that those Spokane ads were displayed "approximately 6,200,000 times."

Proponents of the Chamber-backed slate of city council candidates aren't the only ones spending big on digital ads in the last weeks of this Seattle election.

The Civic Alliance for a Progressive Economy PAC has reported plans to spend $165,000 on digital ads backing Seattle City Council candidates Lisa Herbold (in District 1), Tammy Morales (in District 2), and Dan Strauss (in District 6).

As with a number of other last-minute online ad expenditures, the platforms these CAPE ads were purchased on aren't specified in the PAC's disclosures to local election regulators. Instead, CAPE's expenditures are merely described as purchases of "digital ads" and "digital video."

Other purchasers of mystery digital ads in October:

- The People for Seattle PAC, which is planning to spend $121,472 on "digital advertising"

- The campaign of Egan Orion, which is planning to spend $50,000 on "digital advertising"

- The campaign of Alex Pedersen, which is planning to spend $20,000 on "digital display advertising"

- The campaign of Debora Juarez, which is planning to spend $9,000 on "online ads"

- The campaign of Heidi Wills, which is planning to spend $10,000 on "online ads"

- The campaign of Andrew Lewis, which is planning to spend $16,000 on "targeted digital advertising"

- The campaign of Jim Pugel, which is planning to spend $10,900 on "online ads"

Because of the nature of the digital advertising business, the campaigns themselves may not know exactly where all of these online ads are running. Sometimes, those details are left up to a sub-vendor (and sometimes they involve long and complex chains of sub-sub-vendors).

But to keep the public informed about the paid messages that are swaying voters in elections, and to daylight disinformation, state and city laws require that once these digital ads run, detailed information about them must be made available, promptly, to "any person" who asks.

"Washington state and the City of Seattle both passed aggressive laws in the early 1970s that mandated that this type of information be made available to the public," explained Wayne Barnett, Executive Director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

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Those laws still apply in the digital era, Barnett said, and are important because "we know from 2016 that lots of things can go on with these targeted ads that the average voter would not approve of."

So what should be happening if people ask for information on these last-minute digital ads?

"What should be happening is that Facebook and Google, and anyone else selling advertising to campaigns in the City of Seattle, should be disclosing who paid them, how much they were paid, and the extent and nature of the advertising services that they provided," Barnett said. "That's the law."