Google announced updates to its political ad policy on Wednesday, but made no apparent changes to how it will treat lies pushed by candidates. The most significant change is that it will restrict how political ads can be targeted on its platforms.
As the 2020 US presidential election approaches, how online platforms will deal with misinformation and outright false claims by politicians has become a hot-button issue. Google — which has taken in tens of millions of dollars in political advertising in the United States since last year — has been until now notably quiet in the debate surrounding how online platforms handle political ads.
President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign ran an ad in October on Google-owned platform YouTube that falsely accused former Vice President Joe Biden of corruption for his role in Ukraine policy during the Obama administration.
A Google spokesperson confirmed to CNN Business on Wednesday that the ad would still be allowed to run on Google’s platforms.
This stance comes even as Scott Spencer, a Google vice president, wrote in a blog post on Wednesday, “It’s against our policies for any advertiser to make a false claim — whether it’s a claim about the price of a chair or a claim that you can vote by text message, that election day is postponed, or that a candidate has died.”
In the policy update, Google focused on misleading ads related to voter suppression and election integrity, not claims targeting candidates.
“Of course, we recognize that robust political dialogue is an important part of democracy, and no one can sensibly adjudicate every political claim, counterclaim, and insinuation. 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,” Spencer wrote.
In recent months, Facebook has come under fire for exempting politicians from some of its ad policies. But in a tweet on Wednesday, Facebook reminded users that not even politicians are exempt from its policies banning voter suppression.
“We prohibit voter suppression in all ads,” Facebook said.
Under Google’s new targeting policy, political advertisers will only be able to target ads based on a user’s age, gender, and post code – rather than being allowed to target voters using more granular methods. Facebook allows political advertisers to upload lists of voters to target, for instance.
Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, responded to Google’s move to limit targeting and the clarification on misleading ads by accusing the tech industry of trying to “rig the elections.”
“It seems like they’re targeting Trump because he’s the big dog, but they’re also aiming at Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren,” he said in a statement. “And they won’t stop until they are satisfied that they control all of digital political speech.”
Campaign spokespeople for Sanders and Warren didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment
Political advertisers on Google will still be able to target ads at people reading or watching content about a particular issues, like the economy, Google said in a blog post.
In addition to its ad targeting announcement, Google said that beginning next month it will disclose information on a wider range of political advertising, including “U.S. state-level candidates and officeholders, ballot measures, and ads that mention federal or state political parties.”
Facebook said in its tweet that the company is considering ways to refine its approach to political ads, and that unlike Google, its ad transparency project has always included state and local political advertisements.
Some analysts who study political advertising said Google’s changes to cover state and local politics could improve ad transparency, but that there remain areas for improvement.
“They still do not seem to cover issue ads, PACs, and other dark money groups,” said Damon McCoy, an assistant professor of computer science at New York University. “These issue ads, PACs, and other dark money groups might still have access to a larger range of targeting options. If this is the case, then that is a large loophole in Google’s attempts to limit micro-targeting and political ads.”