Facebook Hit With $25 Million Fine Over Political Ad Disclosures

Facebook's approach to political ads has been under scrutiny since at least 2017, when it emerged that Russian operatives purchased thousands of ads on the platform in an attempt to meddle in the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

In the years following that presidential election, Facebook took steps to make information about political ads more transparent.

But the social media platform's efforts fell short in Washington state, where the law requires companies running digital ads to make information about them available to the public -- including the ads' cost, their sponsors, descriptions of the geolocations and audiences targeted, and the total number of impressions generated.

This week, King County Superior Court Judge Douglass North ordered the company to pay $25 million for violating that law.

North also issued an injunction requiring Facebook parent Meta to respond to all requests from the public for information about political ads, and to make information about the ads publicly available.

The fine came one month after North ruled that Meta intentionally and repeatedly violated the state's campaign-finance law, which was first passed in the 1970s, and updated as recently as 2018.

North found that Meta violated the law 822 times, based on evidence that Facebook failed to respond to specific requests for information about political ads.

In addition to the fine, which came to $30,000 per violation, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson plans to seek $10.5 million in attorney's fees.

Ferguson previously sued Facebook in 2018 for allegedly violating the state's campaign-disclosure law. Facebook settled that matter by agreeing to pay $200,000, and vowing to stop accepting ads in the state.

Two years later, the attorney general sued the company again, alleging that it not only continued to accept ads in the state, but also failed to comply with Washington's disclosure law.

“I urge Facebook to come to its senses, accept responsibility, apologize for its conduct, and comply with the law,” Ferguson stated this week. “If Facebook refuses to do this, we will beat them again in court.”

Separately from complaints over Facebook's compliance with a Washington state law, critics are also raising concerns about the company's ability to detect lies in political ads.

Last week, researchers at the organization Global Witness and the NYU Tandon School of Engineering’s Cybersecurity for Democracy said a study they conducted showed Facebook (and TikTok) approved ads with false information.

For the study, researchers submitted 20 ads with false election information to Facebook, TikTok and YouTube. TikTok approved 90% of the ads, while Facebook approved a smaller but “significant” proportion, the researchers reported.

With just weeks to go before the midterm elections, the researchers are calling on the companies beef up their procedures for vetting political ads, and to provide “full and public transparency over all ads that are published in their online ad library.”

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