Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Facebook, saying the company has “repeatedly and openly” violated state campaign transparency laws by selling political ads without providing legally required details of the spending.
The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, is the second such case against the online social media giant by Ferguson’s office. A similar lawsuit in 2018 resulted in Facebook paying $238,000 to the state in penalties and legal costs.
The new lawsuit comes after the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) in February rejected a proposed $75,000 settlement to address continuing violations, and referred a complaint to the Attorney General’s Office for further investigation.
After the 2018 lawsuit settlement, Facebook voluntarily announced it would stop selling political ads in Washington. But the company has continued to accept them, selling at least 171 ads to Washington state political committees, which have paid the company at least $525,000 since November 2018, according to the Attorney General’s Office. For example, the company accepted ads in Seattle’s 2019 City Council races, as well as for a wide array of other campaigns across the state, including candidates for state representative, the Port of Tacoma commission, Spokane’s City Council and Vancouver’s school board.
It’s not illegal for Facebook to sell such ads, nor for candidates to buy them. However, Facebook is supposed to comply with state law for any such ads by publicly providing details including names of candidates or measures supported; dates the ads ran; names and addresses of persons sponsoring the ads; as well as the total cost of the ads, who paid for them, and what method of payment was used.
Facebook has made some details of political ads across the country available through a searchable public Ad Library. However, the library does not include all the legally required information for ads running in Washington state. Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The PDC investigation that gave rise to the new lawsuit was spurred by complaints filed by Eli Sanders, an editor for Seattle alternative newspaper The Stranger, and by Tallman Trask, policy director for the Alliance for Gun Responsibility.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified financial penalties and legal costs. Washington law allows a judge to triple any penalties for campaign-finance violations if they are found to be intentional.
In a news release, Ferguson emphasized Facebook should abide by the same rules that apply to other media that sell political advertising in the state.
“Whether you’re a tech giant or a small newspaper, those who sell political ads must follow our campaign finance law,” he said. “Washingtonians have a right to know who’s behind the ads seeking to influence their vote.”