Google’s move to curb abuses in online political advertising has sparked a debate about one of ad land’s most-effective targeting tools, known as “customer match,” where marketers serve messages directly to voters based on their email contacts.
Google announced that it was eliminating the ability to use its customer-match tool, which is a favorite tactic of many campaigns. It’s such an effective technique that President Donald Trump’s digital ad team took to Twitter to criticize the proposed steps to curb the practice. “If Hillary [Clinton] would’ve won, these tools would’ve been celebrated,” said Gary Coby, Trump’s digital director, in a tweet on Thursday.
Trump’s camp was concerned this week that Facebook could follow suit by banning “custom audiences” in political advertising. Custom audiences and customer match are similar in that the advertiser brings e-mail lists to the platforms, and they can target ads to those e-mails if that person is logged into Facebook or Google.
Ellen Weintraub, chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission, applauded Google for its action and pressured Facebook to follow. “This is a welcome move by Google that recognizes the problems that political-ad microtargeting has wrought on democracy,” Weintraub tweeted late Thursday. “Now it's Facebook's move.”
Trump’s team is not alone in its use of e-mails to target ads. It is a common approach of political advertisers of all persuasions. Campaigns have been able to conduct sophisticated messaging based on collecting the e-mail addresses of supporters and matching those to voter rolls, identifying likely and unlikely voters, and then using that data to turn out the vote.
Such hyper-targeted ad campaigns have caused big concerns, however. In 2016, certain groups were found to be targeting voters with the intent to lower their enthusiasm for voting. Over the past four years, there have been reports of voter-suppression efforts that targeted key demographics in multiple elections, from the U.K. to the U.S.
In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Internet Research Agency, which was the Russian troll farm that spread disinformation to U.S. voters, partly used custom audiences to guide messaging campaigns.
Each of the platforms responded to the interference with a variety of measures designed to safeguard their services. Facebook, Twitter and Google opened ad libraries that catalog political ads for research purposes, providing more transparency. Then last week, Twitter banned political advertising that supports a candidate or specific piece of legislation.
On Wednesday, Google announced its changes. “We’re limiting election-ads audience-targeting to the following general categories: age, gender and general location,” Google said in its announcement.
Facebook is still looking for the right formula for its political ads policy. CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his top lieutenants have said that political advertising is an important part of the service, giving a voice to candidates who otherwise would have a hard time breaking through big-moneyed rivals.
However, following Twitter’s political ad ban and Google’s targeting changes, Facebook has acknowledged it is exploring additional measures. “For over a year, we’ve provided unprecedented transparency into all U.S. federal and state campaigns, and we prohibit voter suppression in all ads,” a Facebook spokesman said in an e-mail statement. “As we’ve said, we are looking at different ways we might refine our approach to political ads.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook is considering targeting changes, too. One of the remedies under consideration would increase the size of the minimum target audiences, so politicians couldn’t just send super-discrete messages to a handful of voters. That kind of highly targeted advertising is seen as too secretive to detect and regulate properly. Election officials have a hard time vetting every microtargeted message.
“Custom audiences defeat the disclosure of ad targeting, as even Google or Facebook don’t know how a given ad was targeted,” Weintraub, the election commission chairwoman, said in her tweet.