Google’s new restrictions on political advertising, following an outright ban on such ads by Twitter, amount to a one-two punch on 2020 campaigns: The online platforms are creating a big new headache for them, while failing to address a different problem they fear most.
The decision to limit campaigns from targeting users based on political affiliation or voter record, which Google announced Wednesday night, was aimed at addressing concerns about invasion of privacy and the exploitation of voters through hyperspecific targeting.
But the policy will most likely have little impact on the thornier challenge of disinformation, which campaigns and cybersecurity experts say will be the more urgent problem facing the major social media platforms during the 2020 election.
Google’s new policy restricts a tactic — microtargeting of voters — that campaigns heavily rely on, while not aggressively addressing misinformation.
Modern disinformation campaigns that have plagued other global elections like those in the Philippines have not relied heavily on using targeted advertising. Instead, they have focused on creating so-called organic content — trolls posing as ordinary users on sites like Facebook initiate charged discussions, then amplify them through both human and automated networks to sow division and spread falsehoods.
These posts draw far more views than ads on sites like Google and Twitter. Restricting targeted ads, campaigns and experts say, eliminates a crucial tool candidates use to reach voters, but retains a system that hackers and trolls have proved adept at exploiting and that social media sites struggle to adequately police.
“It’s outrageous,” said Tara McGowan, the chief executive and founder of Acronym, a new Democratic super PAC. “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.
“This change won’t curb disinformation,” she added in a text message, “but it will hinder campaigns and (others) who are already working against the tide against bad actors to reach voters with facts.”
On Thursday, two separate groups of digital strategists — a bipartisan coalition from the University of Chicago, and a group of roughly 40 Democratic and progressive strategists — released letters criticizing Google’s new policy. The letters, which were obtained by The New York Times, both fault Google for not adequately addressing disinformation.
“Policy changes by Google, other platforms, and regulators should focus on curtailing bad actors and stopping disinformation,” wrote the digital group from the University of Chicago. “Policy changes designed to limit legitimate political communications and dialogue are not the right approach for a democratic society.”
Google does have policies designed to combat misinformation, and in February it published an extensive white paper on the subject. The policy announced on Wednesday did also state that Google was willing to take down false ads, something Facebook has not been willing to do.
Officials at Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
There are numerous examples of how difficult it is to enforce misinformation policies on such a massive platform. Political operatives and campaigns have maintained that the announcement by Google is a halfhearted attempt to address the underlying issues plaguing political discourse on social media, an issue that has made tech companies a target of withering criticism from Congress, advocacy groups and some Democratic 2020 candidates.
A quick search on YouTube for Senator Kamala Harris, for instance, turns up dozens of videos that are spreading the lie that Ms. Harris isn’t an American citizen, including some with more than 100,000 views. None of these videos are ads.
“Tech companies have a responsibility to combat disinformation, and when their platforms are being abused to promote demonstrable lies, fabrications and racist attacks — some of which could lead to violence — it requires more than Band-Aids,” said Ian Sams, the communications director for Ms. Harris. “This is a fundamental problem that threatens our democracy, and what we’ve seen so far isn’t enough.”
Though Google had sent signals that important changes were coming to the platform, the announcement still sent shock waves through the presidential campaigns. Five Democratic and Republican campaigns all said they were taken aback, especially since employees from Google had been visiting the headquarters of multiple presidential campaigns in recent months, pitching them on their suite of advertising packages and targeting tools.
In 2019 alone, political campaigns and outside groups have spent $44.8 million on Google’s suite of ad platforms, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm.
Search ads on Google and other platforms are an essential tool for building and increasing small-dollar donations, an important cash source in a year when reaching voters digitally has become more important than ever. The ads are also an increasingly vital tool to remaining on the debate stage, as the Democratic National Committee continues to raise the threshold of individual donors to qualify for future debates.
“Broad targeting kills fund-raising efficiency,” said Rob Flaherty, former digital director for Beto O’Rourke.
“If you can’t use ads to target potential donors based on your own donor data, it’s going to hurt the ability to build a list,” Mr. Flaherty added. “And if you hurt the ability to build a list, you hurt the efficiency of email fund-raising. Everyone thinks about this as a solution to fix scary persuasion ads, but most of digital ad spend is about raising money.”
The decision will also most likely make advertising on Google more expensive and less efficient, a change critics argued would hurt smaller campaigns and down-ballot candidates who do not have the war chests of large Democratic presidential campaigns.
It also removes the ability of campaigns to “re-market” ads, meaning advertising to people who had previously visited their website, an important feature to campaigns. That change is intended to address the privacy concerns that emerged after the 2016 election, most dramatically with Facebook.
Indeed, looming over the announcement from Google is a pending decision from Facebook on whether it, too, would begin to restrict political campaigns from certain aspects of its advertising platform. Facebook is by far the most popular advertising platform in politics, and presidential campaigns have spent more than $60 million during this cycle alone.
The mere hint of changes was enough to ignite the Trump campaign to an aggressive public response on Wednesday night, accusing Facebook’s decision of being more rooted in the company’s financial bottom line.
The policy announcement was praised, however, by Ellen L. Weintraub, the chair of the Federal Election Commission.
“@Google’s plan to eliminate #microtargeting is a move that – if done right – could help make internet political advertising a force that informs and inspires us, rather than isolating and inflaming us,” Ms. Weintraub wrote in a series of Tweets on Thursday.
Some digital strategists also welcomed the policy changes from Google, noting that restricting the microtargeting would cause more ads to be seen by more people, therefore most likely diluting the effect of the more insidious types of messaging.
“What they’re getting at is a lot of the shadiest stuff goes unnoticed because it’s hard to see what’s happening,” said Michael Slaby, a Democratic digital strategist. “Because now you have to buy in larger groups, it’s less easy for someone to just say, ‘Let’s put these voter suppression ads in front of all the African-American voters in Milwaukee.’”
“I think their hope is that with more visibility, people will be less bad actors,” he said.
But David Goldstein, the chief executive of Tovo Labs, a Democratic digital consulting firm in New York, said Google had simply created a new problem. The company, he said, now faces the question of “how will it discern a political versus nonpolitical advertisers?”
“Unless they’re absolutely ruthless, it’ll be a cinch to get around,” he added.
Identifying a campaign ad and restricting how it is targeted will not be a problem. “But PACs? Is that political or ‘issue-based’? And what if I just use an LLC to push political content?” Mr. Goldstein asked. “Are they going to start aggressively regulating content? That’s almost impossible to imagine.”
Nonetheless, those who have been looking for platforms to take a proactive approach considered the policy from Google to be a good opening policy, so long as it wasn’t the only one.
“I think it’s a good first step,” Mr. Slaby said. “I think if there’s no second step, I’m going to be pretty disappointed that they thought this was the magical switch they could flip.”
Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting.
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