While the American people are fixated on impeachment hearings featuring members of Congress and witnesses debating who interfered in the 2016 election, companies like Google are making moves that could tip the scales more heavily for Donald Trump than anything the Russians did in the last presidential election.
This week the search engine giant announced it would stop political campaigns from targeting voters with ads based on their voting habits and other attributes. Unfortunately, these changes won’t stop the cyberwar tactics of our adversaries abroad or politicians who run demonstrably false ads that undermine our democracy.
Google may be a household name to many, but it’s a pretty small slice of the Internet and paid ads are an even smaller slice than the content that they seek to monetize. If Google was serious about helping our electoral system, it would announce major changes to their engagement algorithms that promote harmful content and debunked conspiracy theories in search results.
The announced changes will not stop microtargeting because marketers will just move their ad dollars to other platforms, like Facebook, that permit precise targeting. But make no mistake, if others in Silicon Valley follow the company’s lead, it’ll have a chilling effect on our political discourse.
An industry-wide ban on microtargeting could be incredibly helpful to politicians whose path to victory relies exclusively on winning a very high percentage of white voters. Conversely, candidates who must mobilize African Americans, Latinx, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, students, LGBTQ+ people, and college-educated non-married white women in order to win, will be hobbled.
Without the ability to reach voters in these communities with messages that address their varied concerns, these voters will be disenfranchised and far less likely to turn out on Election Day.
The real winner with these changes isn’t the voter — it’s Google. When campaigns are no longer able to target those they need to persuade, they must spend far more money buying ads from companies like Google to reach a broader audience that likely includes the very voters they wanted to target in the first place. Far from helping our democracy, its Google’s bottom line that stands to benefit.
From foreign influence to outright lies, there are major problems when it comes to digital advertising. To bring transparency and accountability to the system while protecting the ability for candidates to reach the right voters, Congress must have an open dialogue with all stakeholders – major and minor advertising platforms, political and digital ad firms, transparency advocates, and national security experts.
Our lawmakers who are mostly digital novices must also employ technologically astute staff who understand the complexities at play here. Only then can we enact new, uniform regulations that have any hope of being implemented from a technical perspective, let alone achieving their desired benefits for our democracy.
We cannot leave it to giant ad-tech companies that have inherent conflicts of interest to eliminate false advertising, disclose those funding ad buys, and ensure that campaigns can meaningfully communicate with their diverse constituencies. Congress must act.
If not for democracy, our leaders in Washington should act in their own self-interest and stop companies like Google from interfering in the 2020 election before they too find themselves unable to reach online the very people who sent them to Congress in the first place.
Mark Jablonowski is managing partner at DSPolitical, an advertising technology firm that serves Democrats. Eli Kaplan is the founding partner at Rising Tide Interactive, a digital consultancy also for Democrats.
Kaplan & Jablonowski are signatories to an open letter from Democratic consultants to Google criticizing the ad policy changes and calling on it to “stem the dangerous tide of organic disinformation.”