Twitter to pay $100k to Washington state in settlement over political ad disclosure violations

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Twitter agreed to pay $100,000 to settle charges that it violated Washington state campaign finance laws that required the company to maintain records about political ads on its platform and make those records available for public inspection. The settlement applies to the seven-year period before Twitter stopped running paid political ads last year.

The agreement, announced Tuesday morning by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, comes in the runup to the November 2020 election, at a time of heightened scrutiny of the role of social media in influencing public opinion in U.S. elections.

Twitter’s settlement with the state follows similar deals two years ago in which Google and Facebook agreed to pay $217,000 and $238,000, respectively, for violating the same law.  Ferguson has since filed a new suit against Facebook alleging that the company has continued to violate the law.

“Transparency in political advertising is critical to a free and informed electorate,” Ferguson said in a statement. “Whether you are a local newspaper or a multinational social media platform, you must follow our campaign finance laws.”

Bob Ferguson
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson. (GeekWire File Photo / Dan DeLong)

The state law traces its roots to a 1972 state initiative. The state Public Disclosure Commission added specific rules for digital political advertisers in November of last year. The state requires companies to maintain and provide, upon public request, information including the names and addresses of the people sponsoring and paying for a political ad campaign; the total cost of the campaign; method of payment; and other information.

Washington state officials alleged that Twitter’s violations of the campaign finance disclosure law took place from 2012 to 2019. During that period, Twitter collected $194,550 for political ads from at least 38 candidates and committees in the state, according to the judgment and a statement from the attorney general’s office.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced in October 2019 that the company would no longer run paid political ads.

The case resulted from a complaint by a researcher, Tallman Trask IV, to the state Public Disclosure Commission, in October 2019. In a subsequent response to the commission, Twitter said its lack of information about the ads was due in part to an “engineering issue” related to the decision to discontinue political ads.

A lawyer for Twitter told the PDC, “[A]fter Twitter decided to ban political advertisements on its platform, Twitter de-certified political advertising accounts, and these accounts no longer have funding instruments associated with them. An unintended and unanticipated consequence of this de-certification process was that data previously stored within the database was lost or irretrievably corrupted. So even if Twitter once collected billing names associated with these political advertisements as a part of the billing process, Twitter no longer possesses this information.”

The PDC referred the case to Ferguson’s office in June.

An agreement filed Monday in King County Superior Court in Seattle shows that Twitter has formally agreed to pay the settlement. A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment in response to GeekWire’s inquiry on Tuesday morning.

Funds from such settlements go into the state’s Public Disclosure Transparency Account. Settlements and penalties in campaign finance cases brought by the attorney general have collected more than $2.3 million for that account.

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