What Should Social Media Companies Have to Disclose About Political Ads?

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

My first campaign was a run for the Mercer Island City Council in 1979. We had all of $1,200 to spend and most of it went to buying ads in the Mercer Island Reporter. Campaign mailers were not in the budget, and even if they had been, we didn’t have access to the targeted voter lists candidates use today to get their messages to the right people. 

In the years since, I have witnessed a dramatic transformation in how campaigns are run. The advent of social media and other online platforms such as Google and Facebook has opened avenues of direct communication with curated groups of voters once reserved for well-moneyed campaigns.

This new technology is also a reminder of what the founders of the Public Disclosure Commission (disclosure: I currently chair the PDC) knew so well nearly 50 years ago when they fought to create campaign disclosure in Washington state: The cure for much of what ails the political process is public access to information. Empower the voters to see behind the curtain so they can hold candidates to account. That foresight has fostered Washington’s reputation for good government and fair elections. 

The present-day Disclosure Commission strives to keep Washington’s groundbreaking 1972 law relevant to the times. Under that law, businesses that provide a platform for political advertising have an obligation to make information about ad buys available to the public. Thus our rules have long detailed specific standards for TV stations, printers, newspapers, mailing services, and even billboard companies. 

Recognizing that modern political advertising requires rules that account for the way campaigns use social media, in 2018 we updated the rules with similar specifics for digital platforms such as Facebook and Google.

Disappointingly, Facebook and Google chose to withdraw from the market and instituted self-imposed political ad bans in Washington. Those bans have effectively shut out campaigns from advertising on the platforms and led to widespread confusion about the law. And the fact that the companies allow some campaigns to still advertise presents its own challenges to a transparent and level playing field.

The PDC has never prohibited campaigns from using Facebook and Google. We only insist these companies comply with the law by giving the public timely access to the records of those ad buys—just as radio stations, mail houses and other vendors have done for decades—offering a vital check on the information disclosed by campaigns themselves.  

Facebook’s and Google’s failure to provide this access when they accept political advertising despite their own bans has repeatedly landed them in court with the state. This results in less transparency, as political ads still appear in Washingtonians’ online feeds, but the required information about who purchased those ads, for how much, and with whose money is unavailable or nearly impossible to get.

I believe the current state of affairs doesn’t provide disclosure, and instead serves to keep low-cost political advertising out of reach for upstart, grassroots campaigns. In response, the PDC wants to help change that by providing the public with its own ability to follow the money when it comes to digital ads. 

What if you could come to the PDC website, look at a campaign’s reports, and click on an advertising expense entry to see the ad itself and details about the purchase? I believe that we can make it easier to comply with the law, make powerful digital communications tools available to all campaigns, and in the process enhance transparency. 

To do that, the sponsors of political ads should bear greater responsibility. Our rules should put the onus on campaigns to identify political advertising for digital ad providers. Candidates and political committees know when they are buying political ads, so why shouldn’t they identify them as such, so the platforms know which records need to be maintained and provided to the public?

And when that self-identification doesn’t happen, there should be not only consequences for campaigns, but a cure-period for digital ad providers to catch up. Platforms don’t get a pass, but we should consider giving them longer than the law’s current 24-hour deadline to have records available when the sponsors conceal the political nature of ad buys. This combination of proactive identification and a “cure period” in those rare instances when it’s neglected will result in quicker, fuller disclosure for the vast majority of ads, and more complete transparency when someone’s trying to hide the ball from the provider—and the public.

None of this will work without the digital ad providers themselves doing a better job of meeting disclosure requirements. The archives that the major players have developed to date still lack required information and specificity. They must provide transparency—and the PDC, with the help of the Attorney General, will continue to hold them accountable when they don’t.

These are among my ideas, as one member of the PDC. The full Commission recently signaled an intention to review the rules regarding digital political advertising, which we hope will kick off a broad conversation about how we make the rules both viable and protective of the public’s right to know. 

At its Aug. 26 meeting, the Commission will provide the first of what will be several opportunities for the public to weigh in. We especially want to hear from those with thoughts on what role campaigns should play in digital ad disclosure and what obligations should remain with the digital platforms. Email digitaladrules@pdc.wa.gov to send your comments in advance or sign up to speak at the meeting. 

Fred Jarrett is a former Mercer Island mayor, state senator and deputy King County executive. He chairs the Public Disclosure Commission. 

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Currently enjoying retirement after of public service and a long career, Fred’s been an active participant our region’s political life for over five decades. Most recently, Fred lead the executive branch of King County government, the King County Executive Leadership Team and the Executive’s Best Run Government Initiative. Previously a state senator, he served four terms in the state House of Representatives, after stints as Mercer Island Mayor and as a city council and school board member. Mr. Jarrett has also had a 35-year career at The Boeing Company.

1 COMMENT

  1. It makes sense to require social media and online platforms to be transparent about purchases of paid political ads on their sites. What does not make sense is requiring those platforms to reveal sensitive, strategic information about the targeting decisions the campaigns purchasing the ads have made. The latter goes directly to the heart of campaign strategy, and creates a disclosure standard far out of whack with the disclosure requirements imposed on other forms of political advertising.

    With the purchase of tv or radio ads, the PDC requires that campaigns disclose the station and the size of the buy. Our state also requires the stations to keep a record of those buys for public viewing if someone wants to come by and see those records. By looking at what shows at what times of day are being purchased, a rival campaign may be able make general guesses about what demographics and constituencies the campaign is targeting, but that’s only a ballpark guess.

    When you buy broadcast tv, you can buy specific shows that may skew towards one demographic or another, but that’s as precise as you can get with your targeting. With cable tv, you can buy specific shows in specific regions (“Oprah” in North Seattle, for example) rather than the entire cable audience, but that’s again pretty general, and revealing that information doesn’t compromise the strategic integrity of a campaign.

    But digital ad buys are more akin to direct mail advertising, because the precision of the targeting involved. With direct mail, the PDC requires campaigns to reveal the amount spent on that advertising, and the number of households targeted. It does not require campaigns to reveal sensitive information about exactly which households they are mailing. That makes sense, because that targeting information is the most sensitive strategic decision a campaign makes.

    Forcing a campaign to reveal their central paid media communications strategy to its rivals goes too far. It’s the strategic equivalent of requiring all internal campaign communications be subject to public disclosure, which of course would be overly intrusive to the point of being absurd. But that’s exactly what the PDC is demanding of digital ad platforms — that they publicly reveal not just that the campaign is advertising, and how much it is advertising, but to whom exactly the campaign is advertising. That creates a vastly more intrusive standard than is required of direct mail communications, and renders digital advertising all but worthless. By requiring this, the PDC is basically saying, “sure, you can buy an ad on Facebook, but only if Facebook tells your opponents your private communications strategy.” That makes no sense, especially since the PDC (rightly) does require you to cough up this highly sensitive information if you send targeted mail.

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