Facebook continues to break Washington State laws regarding political ads

Facebook is not above the law

Kate Erickson, Staff Writer

At the start of last year, Facebook was shocked to find out that they would be held accountable for breaking the law. 


Washington State legislation currently states that companies selling politically-targeted ads in the state elections must be transparent when it comes to who is paying these companies and how much they are getting paid. These documents must have the “exact nature and extent of the services rendered” and should be open for “public inspection”. 


The tech giant announced that they would be pausing political advertisements in Washington until further notice, but what they failed to foresee is that they and Google would also be paying almost half a million dollars in settlements for ignoring a longstanding state campaign finance law, requiring transparency in election ads. All of this, despite their respective promises to follow the law.


Although Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has fought for six months to hold both companies accountable for breaching the campaign finance laws, the tech giants have continued to ignore these laws. Again this October, the Public Disclosure Commission filed additional charges against Facebook for repeatedly violating the law by “failing to maintain documents” that are open to the public, ones that verify the company’s transparency outside the company.

Since the settlement last year, the Seattle Times reported that Facebook has sold more than $39,000 in ads regarding local elections. Although this sale is a drop in the bucket in comparison to the millions of dollars cycling through the City Council elections last fall, these ads are seen by thousands upon thousands of potential voters. 

Numerous Seattle City Council candidates were fully aware of the ban, but many continued to purchase ads. 


In February 2019, The Stranger spoke with losing candidate Ari Hoffman, who at the time was running for City Council in district two, about the ban. Hoffman believed that it was Facebook’s job to block his ads and if they did not, that failure was on them. 


There is no penalty that falls upon candidates who purchase illicit ads, but it is their moral responsibility to see how important tech transparency is. 


This issue goes beyond the state of Washington, as Facebook always seems to be involved in some controversy. 


In October 2019, political ads became a topic of conversation when the Trump campaign posted a video advertisement making false allegations about his opponent former Vice President Joe Biden and his relationship with Ukraine in the lead up to the 2020 elections. The ad went viral and was seen by millions of people.


When Biden reached out to Facebook about the issue, Katie Harbath, Facebook’s public policy director who specializes in global elections, responded by saying Facebook does not and will not fact-check their ads. Their reasoning was “free expression, respect for the democratic process,” and their belief that political speech is already scrutinized enough. 


Facebook’s lack of fact-checking has caused nationwide discussion on the freedom of the press and speech. Although the company claims they do not fact-check political ads because they have a belief in freedom of expression, it seems more like they are using that as an excuse to not have stricter rules and to allow more cash flow.


As social media platforms start to become viewed as news sources, regulating transparency in the media can become tricky in comparison to their more traditional counterparts, such as print media and syndicated television news. 


The laws that Washington State holds on political ads have been in place since the 1970s and have been used to hold radio, television and print media accountable and transparent. Facebook needs to realize it is not untouchable and the law applies to them as much as it does to other media outlets.