In 2016, a Russian “troll farm” spent $100,000 on Facebook ads to sway U.S. voters. A year and a half later, Seattle officials are pioneering an attempt to regulate political Facebook ads — and running into roadblocks from the company.
Washington state and Seattle city laws have long mandated that advertisers selling political ads to campaigns need to make information about those ads public, the Seattle Times reports. TV stations and newspapers already abide by the disclosure laws — but in the wake of the 2017 municipal elections, the city’s authority over Facebook and Google has come into question.
The scuffle began last December, when The Stranger attempted (unsuccessfully) to obtain 2017 Seattle election ad data from Facebook. In response, Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, sent the company a letter telling it to comply with Seattle’s law by January 2. Facebook then requested a 30-day extension, the Stranger reports, telling Barnett that it was taking the matter “very seriously.”
When the company did send Barnett a spreadsheet in early February, however, he was not pleased with what the Stranger called a “woefully inadequate disclosure.”
“We gave Facebook ample time to comply with the law,” Barnett wrote in a statement to the newspaper. “ut their two-page spreadsheet doesn’t come close to meeting their public obligation. I’ll be discussing our next steps this week with the City Attorney’s office.”
The Stranger reports:
Facebook failed to provide [Barnett] with copies of the ads in question or information about their “intended and actual audiences.”
This would be important information for the public to have because political ads on digital platforms, as we learned during the last presidential election, can be used to narrowly target different demographic groups with messages that remain invisible to the wider electorate.
Further, the two-page spreadsheet Facebook sent to Barnett appears to inaccurately convey what local political campaigns actually spent on Facebook ads last year.
Will Castleberry, Facebook vice president for state and local public policy, said in a statement on February 6 that the company is “a strong supporter of transparency in political advertising” and had provided “relevant information” in response to the records request, the Seattle Times reports.
Meanwhile, a lawyer for Google said in an email on February 2 that the company will provide the commission with its required information by February 21, according to the Times.
As Reuters recently noted, buying online election ads requires “little more than a credit card.” Federal law doesn’t force online ad sellers like Facebook, Google or YouTube to disclose the identity of buyers, but legislation to extend rules governing TV and radio to those platforms has been introduced.
Legal experts told the news source that they were unaware of any other regulation attempts by U.S. cities.
“Given the negative publicity around Facebook’s failure to provide adequate transparency in the 2016 elections, I would be surprised if they tried to challenge [the Seattle] law,” Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center told Reuters.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.