Google to Israeli advertisers: No targeted political ads until after election

Search and advertising giant tells Israeli ad companies it’s suspending tailored messaging as part of effort to avoid election manipulation

People walk by Google's offices in New York, December 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)
People walk by Google's offices in New York, December 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

Google has decided to suspend user-tailored online ads in Israel until after the general elections on April 9, the Globes business daily has reported, as part of its global effort to avoid being used for targeted advertising by parties looking to manipulate voters.

Israeli advertising companies were notified of the change last week, the report said. The notice informed them that no targeted or “personal” advertising would be available in the company’s ad-buying systems for anyone dealing in political advertising.

The move comes amid growing anxiety worldwide over efforts by foreign states and other parties to manipulate elections by distributing fake news reports that confirm voters’ biases or radicalize political debates using the targeted advertising tools of major online companies like Google and Facebook.

Since such companies’ primary source of revenue is not their product — in Google’s case search and email, in Facebook’s social networking — but the targeted advertising they are able to generate through the data gleaned from those products, decisions like Google’s have been slow in coming. The companies, alongside other smaller online ad-based platforms like Twitter, have spent the years since the 2016 US presidential election fending off accusations of failing to do enough to prevent interference in that election, as well as other races since.

Google’s decision is reportedly rooted in the company’s belief that it will not be able to distinguish legitimate Israeli political ads from false or misleading ones intended to manipulate the vote.

Some of the Facebook and Instagram ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process and stir up tensions around divisive social issues, released by members of the US House Intelligence Committee, as photographed in Washington, DC, on November 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

Google’s main rival for online ads in Israel is Facebook, which has also taken steps to appear to be tackling the problem, announcing that it plans to launch a system that can identify and monitor political ads targeting Israelis.

The system, slated to launch in March, just before the election, will identify ads that are political in content, block any overseas purchase of said ads for the Israeli market, and make the ads’ costs and target audiences open to public scrutiny and available in an open archive for seven years.

The move leaves Facebook poised to rake in the bulk of Israel’s online election advertising money, according to the report.

“Because of Google’s move, we’re left in the current elections with only Facebook, which is telling us in other words, ‘Do what you want, but we’re going to require transparency,'” one Israeli marketing executive told Globes.

Online advertising has developed by leaps and bounds in recent years. Major platforms like Google and Facebook are today able to generate detailed profiles of voters with specific information about their political views, their social connections and their fears, and then help advertisers, from political parties to advocacy groups to, potentially, foreign espionage outfits, to calibrate messages precisely to those concerns.

Brazil elections team leader Lexi Sturdy works in Facebook’s “War Room,” which coordinates anti-manipulation efforts, during a media demonstration on October 17, 2018, in Menlo Park, California. (Noah Berger/AFP)

Political campaigns often employ fake news in a tactical way. One non-digital example: In the last election, Likud launched an election-day campaign playing on right-wing anxieties over Arab voters, claiming without evidence that there was a massive spike in Arab voting. The spike never materialized, but post-election data shows that the last two hours of voting saw an unexpected surge in right-wing votes cast.

In the 2016 US race, similarly false information was distributed on a mass scale, according to experts and the online advertising companies themselves, with messages resonating even more powerfully as they were carefully targeted to the concerns of individual voters.

Politicians have always sought to understand voters’ desires, even when voters themselves struggle to articulate them. The new online data-centered advertising option allows them to target ads with ever more precision and specificity, taking into account factors from a person’s opinion on a particular issue to their sexual orientation and spending habits. When one logs in to Google or Facebook, these accounts often track online activity on other websites as well, including shopping sites, travel sites, talkbacks on news sites and more.

In Israel, campaign funds available to parties is strictly limited by law and linked to a party’s showing in the previous election. That makes such online advertising more attractive, because it means using limited ad-buying cash in a more effective, targeted way.

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