Google announced that it’s limiting audience targeting on election ads, a major shift for one of the internet’s largest ad platforms that comes after Twitter opted to drop political ads altogether and Facebook said it’s considering policy changes including limits around targeting.
Under a new policy announced Wednesday, election messaging on Google’s ad platforms can target audiences based on only three general categories: age, gender and location, down to a postal code level. Political organizations and candidates will no longer be able to aim their ads at would-be voters using more personal information, such as political affiliation and voting records. Political advertisers will still be able to place contextual ads based on the subject matter of, for instance, YouTube videos or news articles that people are watching or reading.
The company also announced that it would clarify its ad policy to add examples of what’s prohibited in ads. Material that will now be expressly banned includes deepfakes — sophisticated visual forgeries generated using artificial intelligence — and “ads or destinations making demonstrably false claims that could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process,” Scott Spencer, Google Ads’ vice president of product management, wrote in a blog post.
“[G]iven recent concerns and debates about political advertising, and the importance of shared trust in the democratic process, we want to improve voters’ confidence in the political ads they may see on our ad platforms,” Spencer said.
Outright lies like giving the wrong date for Election Day will continue to be prohibited. But Spencer suggested the company will give a wide berth to claims that are simply questionable. He wrote that the company recognizes “that robust political dialogue is an important part of democracy, and no one can sensibly adjudicate every political claim,” and that it expects “the number of political ads on which we take action will be very limited—but we will continue to do so for clear violations.”
The move comes as tech giants grapple with how to handle campaign messaging in a politically fractious time. And Google’s light-touch approach to misleading political ads echoes aspects of Facebook’s permissive ad policy that now face scrutiny. That company largely political ads free reign, allowing misleading claims and extensive demographic and geographic targeting.
That position, which CEO Mark Zuckerberg has defended as being in keeping with a commitment to free expression, has drawn heavy criticism, including from 2020 U.S. presidential candidates like Senator Elizabeth Warren (Democrat-Massachusetts) and former Vice President Joe Biden, the target of a misleading Trump campaign ad that Facebook refused to take down. (Google’s YouTube also carried the ad.) Facebook’s global policy chief, Nick Clegg, confirmed to POLITICO earlier this month that the company is now considering revising aspects of its permissive political ad policy, including potentially placing limits on targeting capabilities.
But that prospect has in turn sparked ire from U.S. President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, which tweeted Wednesday, “@facebook wants to take important tools away from us for 2020. Tools that help us reach more great Americans & lift voices the media & big tech choose to ignore!”
And the campaign was just as critical of Twitter’s move to simply drop political ads. The president’s 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale called the decision “yet another attempt to silence conservatives,” claiming it was meant to undercut Trump’s campaign apparatus. Other Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz (Republican-Texas) raised more general objections, arguing the move runs counter to free speech principles.
Google’s policy adjustments will take effect in the U.S. on January 6, 2020, the company announced. (They’ll be rolled out sooner in the U.K. and E.U.). But they’re already drawing critiques of their own, with some commentators across the political spectrum worrying they’ll disproportionately hurt grassroots campaigns and entrench moneyed incumbents that can afford to weather some changes.
“Honestly, I think it is just reckless,” said Greg Berlin, the founder of the Democratic digital advertising firm Narrative. “My largest concern is that it gives a big advantage to the party that has more money. And that party will always be Republicans” as long as outside groups dominate the political landscape, he said.
Another Democratic digital strategist, who requested anonymity to speak freely about the new policy, said that the change would not likely have an effect on the top-of-the-ticket presidential race, but could hurt candidates down ballot, regardless of party affiliation.
“I think it is a PR edge made at the expense of small campaigns. Trump will be fine — he’s buying the YouTube front page, the opposite of what we’re talking about; that’s like a billboard,” the strategist said. “Trump’s got all the money in the world, the eventual nominee will have all the money … [but] your average, good-intentioned political campaign is going to be forced into a less efficient [digital strategy].”
It could also hurt challengers more than incumbents. “Insurgent candidates, the AOCs of the world, are screwed,” said Republican political consultant Luke Thompson, who was critical of the policy change at large as a solution in search of a problem. “The populist tools are out the window now.”
Other strategists were relieved that Google didn’t follow the same path that Twitter took — though that would have been a surprising move, as Google’s ad revenue dwarfs Twitter’s.
“I’m grateful they’re doing something that’s not eliminating advertising altogether,” Taryn Rosenkranz, the founder of the Democratic firm New Blue Interactive, said. “I think there’s still ways you can use smart tactics and techniques … I don’t see it as super limiting.”
Still, the changes could apply further pressure to Facebook, the other major player in the digital ad space.
“The big question is what do other platforms do? The big one is Facebook,” Berlin said. “Facebook would have a really big effect on Democrats’ ability to grow and maintain grassroots support” via fundraising if it were to make similar changes.