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Washington Attorney General sues Facebook over political ads


For a second time, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued Facebook yesterday for allegedly violating the US state’s campaign finance law, his office said in a press release. Washington’s state laws require that ad-sellers have to keep records of who purchases political ads, and make those records public. The lawsuit states that since 2018, Facebook has sold $525,000 in political advertisements to political committees in the state, even though in a 2018 settlement the company agreed not to sell ads to political candidates. Ferguson cited reports pointing out how Facebook was still selling political ads in the state. Facebook told The Hill that state-specific political ads were still banned; we have reached out to the company for further comment.

While the AG’s office identified at least 171 political committees whose ads appeared on the platform, prosecutors couldn’t pinpoint the number of ads that showed up. “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,” Ferguson’s office said in its statement.

Washington law requires the following information disclosed for political advertising:

  • The name of the candidate or measure supported or opposed;
  • The dates the advertiser provided the service;
  • The name and address of the person who sponsored the advertising; and
  • The 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 a database of political ads that is publicly accessible, information like who paid for the advertising, their address, and the payment method used, is not disclosed there, Ferguson’s office said.

Facebook was sued for similar reasons in 2018: In 2018’s lawsuit, which ended with Facebook’s agreement to not even publish ads related to Washington politicians — something that Ferguson’s office says they didn’t even ask for — Facebook paid $238,000 in fines. The same year, Ferguson took action against the company following a ProPublica report revealing that Facebook allowed ads that were discriminatory on the basis of race, disability, sexual orientation and religion. Facebook agreed to make changes that would remove options that let advertisers directly discriminate on those bases for “any advertisement for employment, housing, credit, insurance and/or places of public accommodation.”

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

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