Washington State Sues Facebook For Violating State Campaign Finance Laws

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has filed a lawsuit against Facebook for selling Washington state political ads on its platform but without maintaining the required information for disclosure to the public. Washington claims that Facebook “intentionally violated the state’s campaign finance disclosure law.”

This is the second lawsuit that AG Ferguson has filed against Facebook in regards to political advertising violations. Facebook paid $238,000 at the end of the 2018 lawsuit. Afterward, Facebook stated that it would not sell political ads to Washington candidates; this was not required by Ferguson, but rather a self-imposed policy. However, Facebook continues to sell political advertisements to Washington state political committees and continued to violate Washington’s campaign finance law.

Facebook has sold at least 171 Washington political committee ads since November 2018; they have allegedly earned at least $525,000 from the committees for these ads. in contravention of their s voluntary statement that it would not sell Washington political ads. Again, Facebook had these ads without providing the legally required information. The violations of the state’s campaign finance law was reviewed by the Public Disclosure Committee, which found that Facebook “repeatedly violated” the laws. The PDC then brought the case to Ferguson.

“Whether you’re a tech giant or a small newspaper, those who sell political ads must follow our campaign finance law,” AG Ferguson said. “Washingtonians have a right to know who’s behind the ads seeking to influence their vote.”

It was reported to the PDC that Facebook sold 269 political ads to 12 Washington state political committees for about $20,000, but did not manage the legally required information about the ads for the public. Washington investigators identified another 159 state political committees running ads since November 2018. “Facebook collected more than half a million dollars from these committees, which include both candidate and initiative campaigns. Due to Facebook’s widespread failure to comply with the law, it is currently unknown how many total political advertisements or electioneering communications these 159 campaigns or committees sponsored on Facebook with their collective ad buy of more than half a million dollars.”

Washington’s PDC created specific rules in November 2019 for digital political advertising. “Washington campaign finance law requires commercial advertisers like Facebook to collect information on the sources and payments of political advertising and make it available for public inspection within 24 hours of the ad’s publication.” This information includes: “name of the candidate or measure supported or opposed”; “dates the advertiser provided the service”; “name and address of the person who sponsored the advertising” and “total cost of the advertising, who paid for it (which may be different than the sponsor) and what method of payment they used.” While Facebook maintains an Ad Library, it does not keep the information required by Washington law in its Ad Library.

Ferguson has sought to impose a civil penalty on Facebook, and an injunction to require Facebook to maintain this information and make it publicly available and to pay for the state’s legal costs and fees.  Additionally, Washington law allows a judge to triple penalties for campaign finance violations if the judge finds that the violations were intentional.