Google limits political ad targeting and all ‘demonstrably false claims’

Google has joined Twitter in revising its political ad rules ahead of what promises to be a brutal election season. But while the latter chose to ban political advertising altogether, Google is mainly limiting the ability to target political demographics, and promises to take action against “demonstrably false claims.”

In a blog post Wednesday afternoon, the search giant explained the new rules in a way that is clearly intended to be understood by a broad audience, not the ad-buying elite.

“Given 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,” wrote Scott Spencer, VP of product management at Google Ads.

The primary change, he explained, will be the limitation of targeting terms that can be used for political advertising buys that appear in search, on display ads and on YouTube.

Google knows an immense amount about every one of its users, and as such can display ads to people who like certain products, are concerned with certain issues and so on. But starting in December, if the ad is political in nature, it will only be able to be targeted to age, general and postal code. (Notably, Twitter considers using ZIP codes “microtargeting” and will not allow it for political content.)

That’s nice, but it should be noted that such microtargeting may not be necessary for political issues, since advertisers can target search terms like “South San Jose city council candidates” and they’re off to the races. They just can’t send ads to people because they’re a Democrat, a Republican, support marriage equality, handgun restrictions, etc… but they can buy ads for the search terms “gay marriage,” “assault rifle ban” and other items. That’s kind of fundamental to search-based ad buys.

At least it seems to be a step in the right direction — deep targeting for serious issues like that is not only unproven and controversial, but also fundamentally creepy. Better to do without it.

Google also said that it’s already “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.”

As further examples of what it would not allow, it cited “misleading claims about the census process, and ads or destinations making demonstrably false claims that could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process.” That puts rather a fine point on it.

And as a warning to temper your expectations, Google noted that “no one can sensibly adjudicate every political claim, counterclaim, and insinuation,” so it plans to take “very limited” action, only for “clear violations.”

Funnily enough, of all the institutions on Earth, Google seems the one best suited to adjudicating content in that way. But “sensibly” is the key word here, and it is sensible for Google to avoid making promises it can’t keep.

Lastly, Google will be expanding its election-related ad transparency reports to include “state-level candidates and officeholders, ballot measures, and ads that mention federal or state political parties.” These will be publicly searchable like those for national candidates, as shown above.

That the major platforms are moving at all on this question of money in politics is good, but it is hard to say how these restrictions — such as they are — will affect how things play out. It’s unlikely this is the last we’ll hear from Google, Twitter or others on the topic.