Google Policy Shift Stops Well Short of Ban

For three years now, web companies have been facing increasingly loud consumer demands that they do something about false or misleading political advertising on their platforms or using their channels. The rub, of course, is that political advertising is extremely lucrative, and companies are not willing to give up that cash flow without good cause, regardless of public outcry. Finding a happy medium continues to prove frustrating, leading to ongoing PR issues.

One company after another has come forward with plans to address this. These plans have been hailed as good steps by some and reviled as not nearly enough by others. The latest web company to respond to demands and complaints is one of the biggest. Google recently announced updates to its political ad policy.

While the new policy will, indeed, shift how political ads can be targeted, in a nutshell, it’s not really changing much of what consumers and media watchdogs are concerned about. Namely, the lies told in political ads. In fact, the recent announcement might have only served to push Google to the forefront of a conversation that, to date, has mostly focused on social media giants Facebook and Twitter.

In response to years of complaints and accusations, Twitter announced that it will run “some” political ads, though the platform will not allow politicians to advertise directly. Given the preponderance of PACs and other parallel channels, direct advertising by politicians is seen by many to be largely unnecessary, causing some to outwardly dismiss Twitter’s move as pointless and much ado about nothing.

Meanwhile, Facebook has gone another route. Instead of touting bans on advertising, Facebook says it will work to combat “voter suppression” in ads posted on its platform. What this actually means is open to interpretation, though the impression does not appear terribly positive.

Which brings us back to Google, which owns popular social video sharing platform, YouTube. The company is under pressure because of allegations some national politicians are already running “false video ads” on the platform. One ad in particular received serious scrutiny, but Google announced it would continue to allow the ad to run. So, what, if anything, does Google plan to do about “false advertising” during political season?

Google VP Scott Spencer recently blogged about it, saying:

“It’s 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… Of course, we recognize that robust political dialogue is an important part of democracy, and no one can sensibly adjudicate every political claim, counterclaim, and insinuation…”

Regardless of the logistical reality of Spencer’s comments, his take was not exactly the line in the sand critics and watchdogs were hoping for, so we can expect this controversy to roll on, unimpeded, gaining steam as we get closer to election day. It will be interesting to see how the messaging plays out.

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