Following Twitter’s recent political ad cop-out, last week Google announced new restrictions on political advertising on its digital platforms, including YouTube. Unlike Trump’s favorite microblogging platform, Google will still allow ads from political campaigns and and issue-advocacy groups, but not when they’re targeted with a certain level of precision. In the process, Google has completely missed the point. In the real world, the problem isn’t the microtargeting; it’s the lies.
Julia Ager made this point in a discussion at last week’s CampaignTech Innovation Summit, when she noted that misinformation (and active disinformation) can still run in ads on YouTube or on Google’s extended ad networks. She cited the recent Louisiana governor’s race and runoff election, in which she worked for Democrat John Bel Edwards and encountered outright lies in ads published on Google properties. The company’s new restrictions would do absolutely nothing to stop them, but they take away useful tools including targeting via a voter file or retargeting people who’ve visited a campaign website or campaign content.
The voter-file restriction in particular may cripple groups’ and campaigns’ ability to reach out to specific voters with messages designed to move them. For example, if I’m trying to boost voter turnout among historically underrepresented communities, I need to put an appeal in front of people in those communities tied to something they care about. That’s the point: to deliver messages to voters that they’re likely to respond to, while not wasting money to reach people who won’t care, won’t be persuaded or who might actually become aroused to oppose you. Direct-mail vendors do it every day, and digital politicos jumped on the similar ability to target households as soon as it became available online.
Corporations zero-in on tiny slices of the consumer world all the time, but Google’s new rules treat political microtargeting as though it’s something inherently dirty. And yes, of course people can use data-driven targeting to deliver messages some would consider bad, for instance when Trump 2016 tried to highlight unflattering Clinton quotes to “suppress” the black vote in battleground states. But I would argue that the problem that year wasn’t data-targeting as a delivery mechanism; it was the flood of misleading content put out by political actors of many different flavors, not just Trumpian — or Russian.
Until the ad platforms acknowledge that content is the problem instead of focusing on the delivery mechanism, they’ll keep missing the point. In the process, they’ll keep making it harder for small, local advocacy organizations and grassroots campaigns — the people who often can’t afford broadcast messaging — to reach supporters and donors in the communities they serve. Donald Trump will do just fine under Google’s new regime. The Americans who’ve chosen to run for local office or advocate for issues close to home? They’re the ones whose voices will be muzzled most. Google, please don’t be stupid.