Google has announced it will publicize the identity of organizations paying for political ads during the 2019 EU Parliamentary Elections. Any ad that mentions a political party, candidate, or office holder will have to tell users who paid for it, with Google also introducing a new process to verify these identities. The Election Ads Transparency Report which summarizes which organizations are spending the money in which locations, will also be returning from 2017’s US Midterm Elections.
Google’s plan to clarify the source of ads placed on its network mirrors a similar initiative announced by Facebook last month, and is a step towards making online political advertising more transparent. However, its definition of political ads is surprisingly narrow in the context of political misinformation campaigns we’ve seen online in recent years.
A narrow focus for broad misinformation
Speaking in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, said that the “vast majority” of ads bought during the election by a company linked to the Russian government “didn’t specifically reference the US presidential election, voting or a particular candidate.” Google’s definition of political ads wouldn’t cover these.
Political influence can also go beyond ads entirely. Fake Facebook accounts, YouTube channels, and Twitter bots have all been used in attempts to influence elections. Instead of paying platforms to artificially amplify their messages, actors will amplify their messages themselves in order to appear to be organic content. Google can regulate ads bought over its service, but this is just a small part of the battle to tackle misinformation online.
It’s currently unclear how exactly Google intends to establish the real identities of people paying for ads, but it’s definitely necessary in a climate where sources of political funding are frequently obscured. The use of US-based shell companies to buy ads was the focus of a congressional hearing last year, while in the UK the origins of Brexit-financier Aaron Banks’ wealth is currently under investigation by the UK’s National Crime Agency. A transparency report is one thing, but it’s only useful when it’s backed up by a thorough verification of where the money originally came from. Similar efforts by Facebook have proved easy to bypass.
With six months to go until the elections are due to take place, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.