Redacted, Redacted, Redacted
Three weeks ago, I asked Facebook for data on political ads it’s been selling this year in Washington State. I was able to make this request because, unlike any other state or the federal government, Washington requires Facebook and all other online ad-sellers to hand over a lot of details about their local political ad sales to “any person” who asks.
Facebook is required, for example, to disclose a description of the audiences targeted by online political ads that are aimed at small slices of the Washington State electorate. Targeting digital ads at precise groups of potential voters—say, male Prius drivers in certain zip codes in Seattle—can be powerfully effective, and the ability to do this is part of the allure of buying political ads from a company like Facebook, whose data collection business enables all manner of “microtargeting.”
The practice, like many new tech innovations, is both controversial and poorly understood by the general public. But there are serious people who now think targeted online election ads offer manipulative potential that’s too dangerous for, and fundamentally incompatible with, democracy. Earlier this year, California Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo, a Democrat, brought forward a bill that would ban microtargeted political ads altogether, declaring: “Microtargeting political ads fractures our open democratic debate into millions of private, unchecked silos, allowing for the spread of false promises, polarizing lies, disinformation, fake news, and voter suppression.” The bill had backing from a number of good government groups and academics, but, as with pretty much all such efforts in Congress, it’s gone nowhere.
Washington State’s solution to the challenges posed by microtargeting has been to mandate transparency. If required disclosures around political ad targeting allow election-watchers to notice, in real time, that false digital ads or online voter-suppression efforts are being microtargeted at particular groups of people in the state, then at least that gives concerned parties the opportunity to sound the alarm before the voting occurs. Potentially, those concerned parties could even aim their own ads at those same groups of people in order to give them accurate information.
But Facebook calls Washington’s mandate for transparency in ad targeting “invalid.” The mandate is part of an unconstitutional disclosure system, according to Facebook lawyers, who are presently asking a Seattle judge to strike that disclosure system down for being, in Facebook’s view, a violation of the company’s First Amendment rights.
As this and other legal maneuvers around Washington State’s digital ad rules have played out over the past several years, Facebook, in an attempt to simply avoid the current disclosure requirements, has issued a ban on local political ads targeting Washington State elections. But over that same period, Facebook has repeatedly proved unable to actually stop itself from selling such ads. This year, for example, it’s sold ads targeting local elections all over Washington state.
When Facebook sells ads like these, state requirements say the company has to make disclosures about the ads’ targeting, cost, true purchasers, and more. So what’s happened in response to my July 12 request that Facebook produce all the required details about all the political ads it’s sold in Washington State since the beginning of this year?
Before the request even got an official processing number, Facebook did two things that may well run afoul of Washington State’s law and rules. One, the company asked me to fill out a form affirming that I’m a Washington State resident, even though there’s no residency requirement for making these sorts of political ad disclosure requests. Two, on that same form Facebook asked me to provide the URL associated with the ads I was asking about. This is not required by state code either, and it spins the disclosure burden around 180 degrees, so that the person who’s requesting the data is responsible for knowing certain things—for example, the entire universe of Washington State political ads Facebook has sold over a given period—that only Facebook is in a position to fully know.
Facebook began processing my request even though I declined to fill out the residency and URL sections of its form, but the company is now far past the 24 hours that state rules give it for making required political ad details available. (In court papers, Facebook decries this 24-hour rule as “arbitrary and capricious,” “wholly unnecessary,” and “exceptionally onerous.”)
Facebook took a week to send me its first production of responsive records and another six days to send me a second production. It has not answered questions about when it expects to send a final production.
Even so, what I’ve received so far is quite interesting. The company has sent me scores of documents marked “Facebook Business Record” and these business records are heavily redacted, particularly when it comes to ad targeting information. Explaining this, a lawyer for the company wrote: “Please note that any granular geographic targeting (e.g., city or zip code) has been redacted and that we have provided that information on a state-level instead.”
Being told via Facebook’s “state-level” disclosures that these ads were targeted at the geographic region of “Washington State” is not very illuminating, since the ads at issue were all aimed at hyper-local races within Washington State: city council seats, school board positions, a mayoral election in a small eastern Washington town near Walla Walla that has a population of around 10,000 people. Additionally, these “state-level” disclosures by Facebook end up being no different, when it comes to targeting information, than what’s already available in the company’s online ad library (even though state election regulators have repeatedly said that the amount of information provided in Facebook’s ad library does not meet state disclosure requirements).
“Commercial advertisers are required to disclose geographic targeting to the extent such information is collected by the commercial advertiser,” said Kim Bradford, spokesperson for the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, which enforces state campaign finance law. “If they collect information about geographic targeting that is more granular than state-level data, they should provide it.”
Back in 2019, in response to a PDC investigation, Facebook did cough up some granular targeting data for local political ads it had sold that year. That data showed, for example, which zip codes candidates and campaigns were targeting with specific election ads—valuable information for determining whether a candidate might be saying one thing to people in a certain zip code and another thing to a different mix of people living in another zip code. Facebook’s 2019 disclosures also showed when a candidate was targeting ads at one particular neighborhood (in one instance, Seattle’s Beacon Hill), or when a candidate got even more specific and targeted ads at a certain Seattle address and its surrounding two-mile radius.
Asked about the decision not to disclose this sort of “granular” targeting in response to my current request, Katherine Canning, a lawyer for Facebook, wrote in an email: “We believe Facebook’s production is compliant with Washington law.”
A second interesting thing about Facebook’s disclosures so far is that they reveal ads one wouldn’t have been able to learn about through other means, such as searching the Public Disclosure Commission’s online database of campaign finance disclosures or searching Facebook’s own online ad library.
These revelations indicate that some Washington State campaigns have not been reporting their Facebook ad spending to the PDC—or are dragging their feet in reporting Facebook ad buys, or are obscuring their required reports to the PDC about Facebook ad spending, whether on accident or on purpose, in ways that make those reports not turn up in the PDC’s database when one searches for Facebook-related expenditures.
This is important because Facebook and some election regulators have suggested there’s really no need to place any disclosure burden at all on “commercial advertisers” such as Facebook. Place the entire disclosure burden squarely and solely on the people who are doing the ad spending, they argue. After all, it’s the candidates and campaigns who know exactly what they’ve spent on Facebook ads and exactly who they’ve targeted with those ads. Make those people 100-percent responsible for coming clean.
The problem, as Facebook’s current disclosures suggest, is that there are all sorts of reasons—ranging from laziness to confusion, sloppiness, and nefariousness—that someone who’s purchased a bunch of targeted Facebook political ads might not properly disclose those ad buys to election regulators. When this happens, the ad becomes effectively invisible to everyone except the few targeted people who viewed it and to Facebook, the company that sold the ad.
A few numbers can show how much more becomes visible through Facebook’s recent disclosures. Back on July 12, when I made my request to Facebook, I could see in the PDC’s online database that around a dozen Washington State campaigns and candidates were reporting purchases of Facebook political ads this year. But in response to my disclosure request, Facebook has so far sent me information on more than two dozen campaigns and candidates that were able to purchase Facebook ads targeting Washington State’s elections this year. That’s twice as many campaigns and candidates as I was able to find by searching for Facebook-related expenditures in the self-reports filed with state regulators.
Another example of the value in being able to compare Facebook’s disclosures with a campaign’s own disclosures involves “Compassion Seattle.” That’s the controversial effort to alter the homelessness strategy of Washington’s largest city. This local campaign ran six Facebook ads during a period when the Compassion Seattle team was ramping up and gathering signatures to get on the November ballot, according to Facebook’s online ad library. But in the heavily redacted business records Facebook has sent me so far, only one ad for Compassion Seattle appears.
That ad called on people to “download and sign the petition by June 25”and was shown more than 34,000 times, a number that’s more than half the number of signatures Compassion Seattle ultimately gathered and turned in to get a ballot spot. The ad was targeted, according to Facebook’s heavily redacted business records, somewhere within the geographic area of “Washington State.” More precise targeting data for this ad has been blocked out by Facebook, and since it’s highly doubtful the sophisticated people behind Compassion Seattle targeted their ads anywhere beyond of Seattle, it would be interesting to know exactly where within Seattle this and other ads for the politically polarizing measure were targeted (something that would become apparent if Facebook disclosed more granular targeting information).
So, to review: Six ads from Compassion Seattle show up in the Facebook online ad library, only one shows up in Facebook’s disclosures to me, and, according to those disclosures to me, a total of $493.92 was spent on that one ad that garnered more than 34,000 impressions. At the same time, according to Facebook’s online ad archive, at least $1,700 has been spent on the six other Facebook political ads purchased by Compassion Seattle since the beginning of this year, with a minimum of 94,000 collective impressions involved for those ads. And over in the PDC’s database? Compassion Seattle’s disclosures to state regulators say the campaign has only spent $85 on Facebook political ads.
None of this adds up, and the only way to have realized that is by being able to compare Facebook’s state-mandated disclosures to me with Facebook’s voluntary disclosures in its online ad archive and with Compassion Seattle’s own self-reporting to the Public Disclosure Commission.
Perhaps there’s an explanation for these discrepancies I’m not thinking of. Perhaps a fuller picture of Compassion Seattle’s Facebook ad spending and targeting will emerge in future productions of information from Facebook, or in future disclosures by the campaign to state regulators. We’ll see. Compassion Seattle hasn’t yet responded to a direct query about this. But without state rules allowing individuals like me to get detailed online ad information from political ad-sellers like Facebook, we wouldn’t even know there was a mystery around Compassion Seattle’s political ads to untangle.
Some of the stories I’ve been reading this week:
• “People are more anti-vaccine if they get their covid news from Facebook than from Fox News” — So says a report in The Washington Post.
• “It’s All About Fox News” — So says a report in Mother Jones.
• The dangers of Tesla’s self-driving “Beta Testing” — “One of the greatest tricks technology companies ever played,” writes Greg Bensinger, “was convincing their human guinea pig users that they were a privileged group called beta testers.”
• Google made a time crystal inside a quantum computer — “The consequence is amazing: You evade the second law of thermodynamics.”
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