Google Has the Most Promising Approach to Political Ads

Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via ZUMA

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We now have three big social media companies that have announced three different rules for political ads. In order:

  • Facebook will allow anyone to say anything.
  • Twitter will ban political ads completely.
  • Google will do away with hyper-local audience targeting.

Unsurprisingly, nobody is happy with any of these companies. The reason is simple: a rule-free environment, like Facebook’s, allows an endless firehose of crap to be published. But if you add a rule, there will always be a requirement to interpret the rule. Twitter will have to decide which things are political ads and which aren’t. Google will have to do the same, since presumably hyper-local targeting will still be allowed for non-political accounts.

So which is worse? Letting anything go, or having to continually make judgments about what’s allowed and what isn’t—and putting up with endless kvetching about how they’re getting it wrong?

There is no good answer. For what it’s worth, I think Google has the most promising approach. Hyper-local targeting is what gives a lot of the most outrageous ads their power: their creators know they can say anything they want and it’s unlikely anyone in the mainstream media will ever see it or take it seriously. If you force them to broaden the reach of the ad, it costs more—which all by itself cuts down on some of the most frivolous stuff—and it’s more likely to become widely seen and do more harm than good to your preferred candidate.

It’s true that Google still has to decide whether something is a “political” ad, but that’s doable. What’s more, they can afford to be fairly loose about this since, unlike Twitter, they aren’t banning the ads completely. Anyone who grumbles about being “censored” needs only change the targeting of their ad a bit so that more people can see it, and they’re back on the air. If they’re afraid to do that, it’s a pretty good sign that they’re up to something fairly sleazy.

None of this is perfect, and nothing ever will be. One way or another, platform companies have to make decisions, and one way or another, some crap will get through and some legit stuff won’t. The best we can hope for is that social media companies take their responsibilities seriously and devote enough people to the task to prevent too many mistakes. We’ll see.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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