Twitter has been ordered to pay $100,000 to the state of Washington for repeatedly violating election transparency laws, the state’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson revealed in a press release on Tuesday.
The judgment concerns political campaign ads that ran from 2012 until November 2019, when Twitter finally banned all political advertising under the cover of clamping down on the much-hyped scourge of election meddling.
The fine amounts to roughly half of the $194,550 Twitter earned by running ads from at least 38 political campaigns – including state candidates and political committees – in Washington over that seven-year period. And both figures are somewhat dwarfed by the $3.46 billion in annual revenue Twitter received over the course of 2019.
Washington state’s probe into the activities of the social media giant has been ongoing since June, when the Public Disclosure Commission – the body tasked with enforcing election transparency laws – realized something was amiss with Twitter. An independent researcher had been communicating with the PDC since October, attempting to tease out records of payments for political ads related to 12 specific campaigns, but two months of stonewalling by the microblogging platform raised suspicions, according to the press release.
Washington, which has some of the strictest political ad transparency regulations in the US, requires records of political advertising purchases to be publicly viewable within 24 hours of any ad’s publication and to remain so indefinitely. Those records must include the name of the candidate or legal measure being promoted, the dates the advertisement was live, the name and address of the ad’s sponsor(s), the cost of the ad, who paid for it (if different from the sponsor), and how they paid.
Twitter isn’t the only platform to run aground on Washington’s unusually strict campaign transparency laws. Ferguson announced in December 2018 that both Google and Facebook would be required to pay over $200,000 to settle lawsuits regarding their failure to keep records of campaign advertising going back to 2013.
This April, Ferguson again sued Facebook for selling political ads to Washington entities without keeping the legally required records, arguing this time that the social media behemoth had deliberately flouted regulations – meaning Facebook would be forced to pay triple the penalties as when it had unintentionally broken the law. The court rejected Facebook’s effort to have the charges dismissed in August, and the case is ongoing.
While one might be tempted to champion the state as a hero in the fight against Big Tech’s apparent abuse of US law, six-figure penalties amount to the equivalent of pocket change for the social media giants. Facebook settled with the Federal Trade Commission last year for $5 billion on charges of violating a consent decree regarding the protection of users’ data, the largest-ever privacy-related penalty in the US agency’s history.
An additional $100 million fine was extracted due to the firm misleading investors about the seriousness of the privacy breach. Still, the penalty amounted to a fraction of Facebook’s $70.69 billion revenue for 2019, and critics mocked it as a “parking ticket.”
However, Washington state has not been shy about targeting deep-pocketed and powerful interests when it comes to enforcing election transparency laws. In 2016, the Grocery Manufacturers Association was ordered to pay $18 million for covering up the origins of financing for a massive advertising campaign it ran in 2013 in an effort to block an initiative to label genetically modified foods.
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