In an effort to comply with new regulations on how user data can be used, Google will begin restricting the extent of the user data it sells to its advertisers. The change comes as a direct outcome of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which forced world governments to take action regarding how user data can be handled, particularly in political advertising.
Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have addressed the way political ads will be treated, but Google decided to extend its policy further, limiting how much demographics information can be sold to any advertisers at all. This decision impacts the political sphere far greater than Facebook or Twitter’s policies do, and here’s why:
Facebook’s Policy On Political Ads Is, By Far, The Least Effective
Despite the fact that Facebook was at the epicenter of the monumental Cambridge Analytica scandal that unfolded throughout the 2016 elections for Brexit and the U.S. Presidency, the company has been surprisingly lenient toward political ads going into 2020.
In a decision that has been deeply criticized by both the public and our politicians, Facebook announced recently that it will not be fact checking political advertisements going into the 2020 election. Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg have doubled down on the decision, however, claiming that the Federal Communications Commission is urging broadcast companies not to interfere or censor speeches and announcements from candidates.
In Facebook’s eyes, censorship is more unethical than allowing for disinformation to be promoted and spread on the platform. But without fact checking—or even putting strict rules and regulations on who can take out a political ad—anyone can sponsor an advertisement either promoting or attempting to discredit a politician.
Anyone Can Make A Political Ad
I, who am neither a politician nor employed by one, can take out a political ad on Facebook as long as I’m the admin of a page and have confirmed my identity with a two-step verification process. Oh, and have given my credit card information. Instead of donating to a campaign, I could simply make a page on Facebook and take out a political ad.
The company has taken measures to increase transparency. But this strategy still depends on an individual user seeking out information on who took out the political ad manually through a search engine set up on Facebook. In an age where few people read beyond the headline—and Facebook knows this—giving users the opportunity to fact check political ads themselves won’t go very far.
That is, however, if the user knows the resources to research these donors are there in the first place. If we learned anything from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it’s that the people that were impacted the most were also the people that were least likely to question the information they were fed.
But Facebook will make a whole lot of money off of ads during election seasons (the company brought in $8.63 billion during Q4—election month—of 2016 alone). Something has to pay for all of those lavish parties, brag-worthy office spaces, and Zuckerbergs massive salary.
Twitter’s Policy Was Made For Media Attention, Not For Creating A Positive Outcome
Twitter announced its decision to ban political ads on its platform at the perfect time. Zuckerberg had just been roasted in front of the U.S. Congress by New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over Facebook’s decision not to fact check political ads. The topic was fresh in the media, so Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took the opportunity to announce that Twitter would be banning them altogether.
At first glance this seems to be a refreshing take on how politics are treated on social media, perhaps the most powerful communication tool in the world. But a look deeper into the policy reveals that it seems to have been made to attract media attention. The policy garnered praise for the company at first, but later revealed to have a lot of loopholes (news outlets, for example, can still pay for ads about political stories as long as they don’t outwardly promote a single cause or candidate).
Twitter’s Major Political Caveat
Regardless of whether or not a total ban on political ads paid for through Twitter will be effective, the platform’s biggest issue was never political advertising in the first place. It’s disinformation. Twitter users have no problem scrolling past a sponsored ad on their timeline. Falsified or biased information presented from a fraudulent profile, however, has a tendency to spread like wildfire, and Twitter’s new features only help fan the flames.
The company, while heavily promoting its new policy toward political ads, quietly rolled out a feature that would allow users to block comments from appearing tied to their tweets. For Donald Trump or state-backed disinformation campaigns from around the world, this is a gift. This means that they can freely post falsified claims or biased information without fear of being held accountable.
Google’s New Ad Policy Tackles All Advertising, Not Just Political
What made Cambridge Analytica so powerful was not in its data mining or lack of transparency, but how it used that data against the people that it advertised to. The company, which has faced pressure from the European Union in recent years to protect user privacy and data, announced that it will be restricting the data that advertisers are able to access starting in February of 2020.
The company already requires websites to collect approval from users in order to deliver ads tailored to their own needs (if you receive ads for something you google’d recently, this is likely why). But now the company will be adding protections to assure that user data is kept private in the future.
Advertisers will no longer be able to access a feature that lets them see the content their ad bid will be placed on. This feature, called “contextual content,” lets advertisers get a better understanding of their demographic by seeing an example of the type of webpage that their content will appear on based on the demographic that they’ve targeted.
“While we already prohibit advertisers from using our services to build user profiles around sensitive categories, this change will help avoid the risk that any participant in our auctions is able to associate individual ad identifiers with Google’s contextual content categories,” said Chetna Bindra, the Senior Product Manager of User Trust and Privacy at Google in a blog post.
The End Of Psychographics?
These new policies will further protect users by prohibiting advertisers from creating in-depth psychographics on their target demographics. Psychographics allow advertisers to further understand a demographic by completing a profile about who they are and what they like.
For example, if you are a 45 year old man living in Iowa, advertisers used to be able to use that information to target what type of content you look at through Google. Because you gave Google permission to track your usage, it can see what you’ve looked at and searched for in order to build a profile of who you are as a consumer.
This information is invaluable to brands—as they can use your data points to hone in on exactly the type of person that is most likely to buy their product—or vote for their candidate. In the heydays of media like radio and television, the most data that advertisers could access are details like age, gender, and location. In the internet era, these advertisers can find out everything from your shoe size to what you bought your mom for Christmas. For political ads, this helps put boundaries on marketing strategies without having to closely define political or cause-based advertising.