Opinion | Google has changed its policy on political advertising. Will Facebook be the next?
This has been a bad week for Trump campaign leader Brad Parscale, but not because of the blockbuster testimony by American Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, in the impeachment hearings his boss was using the pay-for-play system relate Ukraine.
Google announced on Wednesday that it would curb its political advertising business. Mr. Parscale – an Olympic digital information manipulator who specializes in creating insincere political ads full of conspiracy theories – will now have one less weapon in his digital arsenal to lead his scorched earth re-election campaign.
He reacted to the news with typical annoyance and tweeted on Google: “Political elites and big tech want to manipulate elections – Dem-Primary and 2020 included. They target Trump because he’s the big dog, but they’re after Dems like Sanders & Warren. Won’t stop until they control all of digital political speech. “
Google has no plans to ban political advertising entirely. But the new directive will hinder many political campaigners – and especially Mr Parscale, as he is the most adept user of technical tools in politics. The Trump campaign continues to outperform all digital would-be digital wannabes combined.
Campaigns can still target ads on Google based on the age, gender, location and content of the websites visited. But now they can’t target their ads based on various specific audience attributes like political affiliation or public voting data. Campaigns will no longer be able to microtargeting, which is the online equivalent of whispering millions of different messages into millions of different ears for maximum impact and with minimal control.
And political organizations will no longer be able to reach “affinity audiences”, i.e. user groups that are bundled according to similar habits. Google has also refined its policy on advertising in a lack of truth, banning ads with “demonstrably false claims that could seriously undermine participation or confidence” in elections. What’s more, campaigns can’t use specific names they’ve collected to target ads, and Google also prohibits “remarketing” from those who visit campaign websites.
Twitter’s recent decision to get out of the political advertising business set this in motion. However, Twitter’s move was primarily symbolic: the political advertising business is small and not particularly critical for the candidates, as they can continue to tweet to their hearts’ content.
Google – the search giant that also owns YouTube – is a different story. Google and Facebook are the only two big tech players that matter in digital advertising given the huge amounts of data they have sucked in on every aspect of the digital life of billions of users.
In its public statements, Google wanted to tie itself closely to old media that have a lot of experience with political advertising. “This will align our approach to campaigning with long-established media practices such as television, radio and print, and result in campaigning being seen more widely and made available for public discussion,” wrote Scott Spencer, vice president of Google’s Ads, sounding as if he were older and smarter than technology ever was.
All eyes are now on Facebook. Google has largely eliminated the clutter of fake political advertising and disinformation, at least when compared to Facebook, which received the lion’s share of complaints.
“Twitter kicked off and Google just turned it up to 11,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital advertising strategist, in an interview with the New York Times. “Now the pressure is on Facebook – they have to act.”
Will Facebook finally take seriously the problems that arise from political advertising on its platform?
Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg is not moving yet: He recently said the company would continue to allow politicians to lie in advertisements. And Facebook has decided not to remove some of the more egregious examples of disinformation. “Drunk Nancy Pelosi” is one such case – and they keep coming back.
Despite Mr. Zuckerberg’s recent announcements, rumors of own political ad changes have leaked on Facebook. Of course, any policy change at Facebook rests with Mr Zuckerberg, who has complete control over the company and is often only pressured to make policy changes when disasters pile up.
This week, Mr Parscale tweeted in front of an audience of one, Mr Zuckerberg, in response to these numerous reports that Facebook is thinking about its own changes: “@facebook wants to take away important tools for 2020 from us. Tools that will help reach more great Americans and uplifting voices that ignore the media and big tech! “
Translation: If Facebook imposes some sensible new rules and restrictions on political advertising to make it more transparent and less manipulable, can we start the next pizza gate?
Many campaigns are also concerned about Google’s restrictions – several Democrats and grassroots organizations have found they could harm smaller organizations and their ability to attract voters. But a Facebook limit on paid political advertising would have much more of an impact on the entire presidential race.
So whether Google will finally give Facebook the courage – and the cover – to change or maintain its fruitful relationship with Mr. Trump himself is a question for all of Washington.
Mr. Sondland could be where the political drama took place, but make no mistake: the real show is here with Big Tech.