Google to limit political ad targeting amid scrutiny

Google on Wednesday announced that it will no longer allow advertisers to microtarget their political messaging, though the tech giant will still allow some misinformation in political ads amid rising scrutiny over how online platforms mediate political discourse.

In a new blog post, Google said it is tweaking its political ad policies in response to "recent concerns and debates about political advertising."

Over the past month, Facebook drew fury over its policy allowing politicians to lie in ads, and Twitter angered a broad swath of advocacy and conservative groups by declaring that it will no longer run political ads at all. 

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“We want to improve voters' confidence in the political ads they may see on our ad platforms,” Scott Spencer, the vice president of product management at Google Ads, said Wednesday. 

Google said it will limit the factors political advertisers can use to age, gender and zip code. The new changes will go into effect globally at the beginning of 2020. 

The company had come under heat from critics and competitors, such as Mozilla, for allowing microtargeting of political ads. Google’s ad platform, which minted $116.3 billion last year alone, is a top destination for advertisers due to its ability to reach audiences with unprecedented specificity. 

But microtargeting — which uses consumer data and demographics to narrowly segment audiences — has been criticized for letting campaigns avoid accountability by spreading misinformation to susceptible populations in ads not seen by the general public.

Google's shift follows reports earlier this month that Facebook is considering a similar change.

While most inaccurate political messaging will remain unaffected, Google clarified its policies to say it will remove advertisements that include doctored content, mislead viewers about the census process or could “significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process.”

“We expect that the number of political ads on which we take action will be very limited—but we will continue to do so for clear violations,” Spencer wrote.

Google will also expand its political ad transparency feature, which shows consumers who bought ads, how much they cost and how they were targeted, to state-level elections and ballot measures in the U.S. on Dec. 3.