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Mark Zuckerberg defended Facebook’s decision to continue running political ads this week, despite concerns about disinformation, in a passionate speech about free expression at Georgetown University. But a legal crackdown in Washington state raises questions about whether Facebook could rein in political advertising even if it wanted to.

In his speech, the Facebook CEO argued for allowing political ads as a matter of principle, even though “from a business perspective, the controversy certainly isn’t worth the small part of our business they make up.”

“Political ads are an important part of voice — especially for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers, and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise,” Zuckerberg said. “Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media covers.”

But with the memory of Russian interference in the 2016 election fresh, and 2020 rapidly approaching, Facebook’s policies on political ads will remain under a microscope. Because of that, Washington state’s unique ad regulations could serve as a case study as federal regulators and voters decide what role the social network should play in spreading political messaging.

Washington law requires businesses that sell political ads to “maintain current books of account and related materials,” and make those records available “for public inspection by any person.” An investigation by The Stranger’s Eli Sanders revealed Facebook was not compliant with the law, reporting that led Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson to sue the tech giant.

Ferguson included Google in the lawsuit for its political ad sales as well. The two companies settled with Washington, agreeing to pay a collective $455,000.

Facebook and Google challenged Washington’s law but regulators reaffirmed it, leading Facebook to announce in late 2018 it would stop selling political ads in the state: “Starting December 28, Facebook will not accept ads that relate to Washington’s state or local elected officials, candidates, elections or ballot initiatives while we look to address these new disclosure requirements.”

However, Facebook appears to be struggling to meet that commitment. The Stranger filed a complaint with Washington’s public disclosure office over Facebook’s continued sale of political ads in February. Earlier this month, the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission filed charges against Facebook for allegedly violating the state law. The charges accuse Facebook of failing to keep publicly available records on the financing and reach political ads tied to local elections.

The ongoing dispute in Washington shows that Facebook’s behavior around political ads may not just be a matter of will. The company appears to have difficulty reining in political advertising. Facebook and Google added weight to that interpretation during their negotiations with Washington public disclosure officials. A representative of the companies said compliance with Washington’s law was “technologically impossible” in a 2018 letter.

Life-seized cutouts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared on the Capitol lawn before his testimony before Congress in 2018. (Flickr Photo / Joe Flood)

As Zuckerberg noted in his speech, Facebook has created a public ad library to make political advertising on the platform more transparent.

“Political advertising is more transparent on Facebook than anywhere else — we keep all political and issue ads in an archive so everyone can scrutinize them, and no TV or print does that,” Zuckerberg said. “We don’t fact-check political ads. We don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying. And if content is newsworthy, we also won’t take it down even if it would otherwise conflict with many of our standards.”

But researchers from Mozilla say Facebook’s ad library is too buggy to be effective.

“Despite our best efforts to help Facebook debug their system, the majority of the issues were not resolved … we regret we do not have reliable or predictable instructions on how to retrieve political ads from Facebook,” Mozilla said in its report.

Our search of the database Friday revealed some ads tied to local races in Washington had been removed and others were still visible.

Facebook did not immediately respond to questions about its political ad sales in Washington state.

The company is under pressure to change its political ad policies because of recent developments in the race for president in 2020. Earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden asked Facebook to remove an ad from the Trump campaign that made false claims about his son’s dealings in Ukraine. Sen. Elizabeth Warren later published an ad that claimed Facebook endorsed Trump for president, a knowingly false assertion designed to highlight Facebook’s allowances for lies in political ads. Facebook and Zuckerberg responded by reaffirming the policy.

“While I worry about an erosion of truth, I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judge to be 100 percent true,” Zuckerberg said in his speech.

Despite the backlash, Zuckerberg remains firm in his resolve to keep political ads on Facebook. In his speech, he even issued a warning about the danger of local regulations, like Washington’s, though the focus was on foreign countries.

“We’re increasingly seeing laws and regulations around the world that undermine free expression and people’s human rights,” Zuckerberg said. “These local laws are each individually troubling, especially when they shut down speech in places where there isn’t democracy or freedom of the press.”

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