Facebook will stop displaying political campaign ads in Washington State in order to comply with campaign finance laws, and will pay more than $238,500 to settle a lawsuit alleging violations of those rules.
Google was also alleged to have violated state laws by failing to maintain records of election ads on its platform, and ceased its political ads this summer, after Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed suit against the companies.
According to documents filed last week, the lawsuits will end without an admission of guilt from either Facebook or Google, which agreed to pay Washington State $217,000. Ferguson told the Stranger that the two payments, which will go into the state’s Public Disclosure Transparency account, represent “two of the largest campaign finance resolutions in state history.”
Ferguson said that he was unaware of other instances in which Facebook and Google have been forced to settle lawsuits stemming from campaign finance allegations against either company. California, New York, and Maryland also have digital transparency requirements to regulate local political campaigns, and Washington is considering possible new federal rules on online political ads.
Facebook debuted a political ads archive earlier this year, but Washington State’s regulators say it still does not include enough data. The state’s 1972 transparency law, considered one of the country’s most stringent, requires that political advertisers disclose the name and address of a given ad’s purchaser, the ad’s cost, and the total number of impressions that an ad received, as well as demographic information about the audiences who saw it.
The companies had opposed the suit, arguing, among other things, that campaigns, not platforms, should be required to disclose information about ads. But a ruling last month by the state’s Public Disclosure Commission reaffirmed the state’s strong disclosure regulations for digital political advertising, which will be enforced starting January 1.
The unusual decision by Facebook comes as tech platforms are trying to increase the transparency of their political ads amid fallout over Russia’s use of their platforms to target U.S. voters. Last week, the U.S. Senate released reports that showed Russia’s barrage of Facebook and Instagram posts and ads was broader than previously thought.
Complicating transparency around political ads are the methods that campaigns use to obscure the actual ad buyers, including purchasing ads through shell companies and limited liability companies. And many political ads—like those linked to the Russian government in 2016—may not make specific reference to the election, voting, or to a particular candidate.
In a blog post on Friday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg described the company’s efforts to prevent election interference, including improving systems for identifying fake accounts, partnering with fact checkers, academics, and governments, and creating “a new standard for advertising transparency where anyone can now see all the ads an advertiser is running to different audiences.”
“We believe all ads should be transparent on Facebook and aren’t waiting for legislation to authorize political advertisers and house these ads in a public archive,” Beth Gautier, a spokeswoman for Facebook, said in a statement last week about the Washington lawsuit.
Amid continued record-setting splurges on campaign advertising, politicians are pouring increasing piles of money into Facebook and other digital platforms. Online ads garnered almost $1.8 billion in 2018 campaigns, more than 25 times more money than they did during the last midterm elections in 2014, according to estimates by Borrell Associates. Last month, Facebook said it had reaped $354 million from more than 2 million political ads in 2018.
The company also faces a number of investigations and legal threats related to its handling of user data. Last week, Washington D.C.’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, in the first major legal action of its kind by U.S. officials.