Under Google’s new policies, political advertisers will be able to target people based only on age, gender or zip code. That means candidates can no longer upload to Google lists of potential or likely voters and target their ads to potential matches, for example, a tactic that allowed them to focus on web users with specific political leanings. Nor can campaigns track and advertise to people after they visit a campaign’s website.
Google plans to implement the rules first in the United Kingdom, starting in a week, before rolling them out globally next year. It amounts to a major change in the United States, especially in the midst of a presidential cycle, given the extent to which President Trump, his Democratic challengers and their predecessors, dating back to then-candidate Barack Obama, seized on the intricate data stores of top tech companies to reach voters. It could be especially troubling for campaigns that seek to solicit a high volume of people for small-dollar donations, experts said.
“This is bad for everybody,” said one top aide on a 2020 Democratic presidential campaign, requesting anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak on the record. Without the ability to focus on likely supporters, political ad pitches on Google are poised to become “less effective and more costly,” the aide said.
That could create additional headaches for Democrats vying for as many eyeballs — and dollars — as they can just as the primary voting season gets underway. The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses are scheduled for Feb. 3, weeks after the new Google rules will start to take effect around the world.
Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist, shared the view that Google’s policy change would have far-reaching impact, transforming how candidates are able to seek out and communicate with particular voters in a crowded information landscape.
"This is a bad day for campaigns trying to reach voters online, especially given that Google represents half of a duopoly in the online advertising market," Wilson added. He said it could put new pressure on Facebook to address similar issues around a practice known as microtargeting.
Google’s announcement responds to growing fears that major sites and services once again risked becoming conduits for disinformation ahead of a major U.S. election. Twitter in recent weeks has announced a ban on ads from political candidates, while Facebook has said it is open to rethinking some of its political ad policies.
Google on Wednesday also said it would bar “making demonstrably false claims that could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process,” but the new rules do little to address the broader universe of falsehoods that have surfaced in ads on search and its video-streaming service, YouTube.
“Regardless of the cost or impact to spending on our platforms, we believe these changes will help promote confidence in digital political advertising and trust in electoral processes worldwide,” said Scott Spencer, the vice president for product management for Google Ads.
The concern is U.S. actors, and the ease with which politicians and their allies can pay to push inaccurate or misleading messages to millions of users almost instantly. President Trump’s 2020 campaign has already tested those limits, purchasing ads that contain falsehoods about his Democratic rivals that have appeared on Facebook and Google — and have not been removed. But neither company has changed its policies in a way that would newly fact-check political ads or outlaw blatant misrepresentations, raising questions about whether the reforms contemplated by Silicon Valley would make a meaningful difference.
The tech industry’s efforts repeatedly have drawn sharp rebukes from Trump’s campaign, which trained its rhetorical fire on Google after it announced its changes Wednesday. “Political elites and Big Tech want to rig elections — the Democrat primary and 2020 general election included,” Brad Parscale, the president’s 2020 campaign manager, said in a statement.
Experts said Google’s new political ad restrictions actually would affect both political parties equally. But it could be especially problematic for “down-ballot campaigns, the small organizations, [who are] not going to be able to afford. . . a true advertising program,” said Betsy Hoover, a Democratic strategist and co-founder of Higher Ground Labs, an incubator for campaign-tech startups.
“It’s a good political move for Google,” she added. “It was smart of them to say that people are uncomfortable with the amount of information advertisers have on them as individuals and not knowing about how it’s being used. The problem is we’ve penalized political campaigns.”
Academics studying the social and political impacts of online advertising were measured in their appraisal, observing that too little is known about how microtargeting actually works to draw clear conclusions.
“Rhetoric in this space has vastly outpaced what we know,” said David Lazer, a professor of political science and computer and information sciences at Northeastern University. One argument goes that the presentation of different messaging to narrow slices of the electorate is “essentially manipulative,” while the alternative case holds that such segmentation “allows for collective action of peripheral groups in society.”
With zip code, age and gender, it will still be possible to reach partisans, Lazer said. But he acknowledged that certain subgroups not easily represented by these variables could prove more elusive to online advertisers. He cited the example of “young Republican women in Manhattan," who could become difficult to target with less precise technologies.
The average population of a zip code is roughly 7,500 people, based on the 2010 census. Zeroing in on specific online audiences has made digital advertising significantly cheaper than paid messaging on television. Some of Trump’s ads blasting impeachment, for example, cost less than $100 to run and still may have reached tens of thousands of people, according to Google’s ad transparency report. Online platforms also enable advertisers to pay for specific acquisitions, such as a click or submission of a form.
The sweeping changes announced by Google are sure to ratchet up the pressure on Facebook. The company has considered introducing new changes that similarly restrict political advertisers from targeting narrow groups of voters, according to a person familiar with the company’s deliberations who was not authorized to speak on the record.
“Now that Google and Twitter have taken responsible steps to guard against shadowy political influence campaigns, Facebook should do the same, rather than continuing to chase political advertising dollars,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
Especially if Facebook follows suit with similar restrictions, said Wilson, the GOP strategist, an unintended consequence of the crackdown would be to “shift ad dollars to platforms that are less transparent.”
That could include other types of ad networks, which connect advertisers to websites that host paid messaging but don’t have the same verification requirements enforced by major tech companies. Nor do all platforms make materials visible to the public in online ad libraries, which both Facebook and Google offer.