In the smoldering aftermath of the political advertising spat between Facebook and Twitter, where the two companies laid out opposing policies, Google has announced that it will roll out a new policy for political ads in the United States early next year.
The search engine giant is taking something of a middle road to regulation: political marketers running ads on Google search, display, and YouTube will no longer be able to target voters through browsing and search history.
Google Ads VP Scott Spencer explained: “(W)e’re limiting election ads audience targeting to the following general categories: age, gender, and general location (postal code level). Political advertisers can, of course, continue to do contextual targeting, such as serving ads to people reading or watching a story about, say, the economy.”
The decision did not sit well with many digital advertising specialists on both sides of the aisle.
Tara McGowan, CEO of ACRONYM, accused Google of using its power of the ad market — one recent study found that it accounts for almost three-quarters of all search ad revenue — to restrict how campaigns and groups connect with voters.
“It’s outrageous. Instead of monitoring and taking responsibility for the spread of misinformation on their platforms, Google has chosen to pursue a disingenuous and frankly dangerous shift in their policies so they can claim publicly to be serious about the problem,” McGowan said in a statement. “This change won’t curb disinformation, but it will hinder campaigns and others who are already working against the tide of bad actors to reach voters with facts.”
Republican digital consultant Carter Kidd argued that persuasion ads will not be nearly as effective:
“You can come up with a lot of ways to work around it for acquisition when you’re looking for new email addresses and things like that, but persuasion is going to be hit pretty hard,” Kidd said. “I think more is likely to come with second and third-party data in terms of restrictions and who can do what. YouTube will certainly be impacted.”
Others offered more of a wait-and-see response.
Republican digital strategist Tate Holcombe told Campaign & Elections that other platforms and smaller ad networks will help fill any void that ends up being left by Google’s more restrictive ad policies. He also noted that despite the changes, key tactics like pre-roll and other video options may still be effective.
“I think by 2020, we’ll adapt to this and be used to it,” Holcombe said. “I do think smaller races may end up suffering because the video piece will be more difficult for them. It will just be trickier to figure out the targeting.”
“It’s still very early,” said Damien Shirley of the Democratic digital firm Middle Seat Digital. Shirley likened Google’s recent announcement to the Gmail tabs it added in 2013.
“Everyone in the email space panicked,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the changes weren’t as destructive as people thought.”
Perhaps the most impactful change in Google’s policy is the decision to remove “Customer Match,” a tool that allows campaigns to use voter data to target online audiences.
Writing in Vox, Emily Stewart explained how this system will change:
“Political campaigns create databases about voters that include information about whether a person is registered to vote, how often they vote, their party affiliation, their mailing address, their email address, and their phone number. They can then upload those voter files to Google and Facebook to find those people’s online profiles, and then advertise specifically to them. Google is now banning political campaigns from doing this. So politicians will no longer be able to serve an ad to me, Emily Stewart, specifically. But they can still advertise to women like me, ages 25-35, in Brooklyn, New York.”
Another factor that could have huge implications in 2020 and beyond is that Google plans to “clarify” its ad policies around false claims. This will involve explicitly banning “deepfakes” (doctored video and images), misleading claims about the census, and any other “demonstrably false claims” that “undermine participation our trust in an electoral or democratic process.”
“No one can sensibly adjudicate every political claim, counterclaim, and insinuation,” Spencer wrote in defense of the clarified policy. “So we expect that the number of political ads on which we take action will be very limited – but we will continue to do so for clear violations.”
Turning up the heat on Facebook
The political ad policy changes from Twitter and Google are putting increasing pressure on Facebook to do the same.
“Twitter fired the starting gun, and Google just cranked it up to 11,” Eric Wilson, a Republican digital advertising strategist, told The New York Times. “Now the pressure is on Facebook — they’re going to have to act.”
The pressure appears to be having some effect. After CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated clearly earlier this year that Facebook would not back down from it’s policy of refusing to censor speech in ads from politicians — including those with demonstrably false claims — the company has since announced that it is considering changes to its policy.
At this point, there’s no telling what these changes might be, though rumors are swirling that changes are coming to Facebook’s targeting policy, ranging from nixing it completely to more gradual changes like requiring political ads to target a greater minimum number of people.
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Image Credit: Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash
Andrew Collins cut his teeth in politics as a congressional campaign staffer during the 2012 election. Since then he has worked in Washington, D.C. as the digital media manager and as a staff writer at the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, and is a recent graduate of the Trinity Fellows Academy (class of ’17). His work has appeared in Politico, US News & World Report, The Chicago Tribune, The Daily Caller, and The Hill. He lives in Seattle, WA.