The online political advertising wars rage on.
In late September, Facebook pleased almost no one when it announced that it would exempt posts by politicians, including ads, from its fact-checking system. Almost as if on cue, a few days later the Donald Trump reelection campaign dropped an ad full of conspiratorial claims about Joe Biden. When the Biden campaign requested that Facebook take down the ad, the company declined.
In the wake of the ensuing backlash, other social media companies took the opportunity to distance themselves from Facebookâ€™s decision. Twitter, never a big player in the political ad game, decided to get out of it entirely. And, in late November, Google announced that it would stop allowing political ads to target users beyond the broad categories of zip code, sex, and ageâ€”a reform that would make sure questionable claims get exposed to a wider audience that can rebut them. The company also clarified, in an implicit rebuke to Facebook, that it doesnâ€™t treat ads for politicians differently from ads for anything else: â€œWhether youâ€™re running for office or selling office furniture, we apply the same ads policies to everyone; there are no carve-outs. Itâ€™s against our policies for any advertiser to make a false claim.â€� While Facebook might be happy to let Trump say whatever he wants about Biden and whomever else, that apparently wouldnâ€™t fly in Google world.
So it seemed, that is, until Sunday nightâ€™s episode of 60 Minutes. In a segment on YouTubeâ€™s battle against hate speech and misinformation, correspondent Lesley Stahl asked CEO Susan Wojcicki point-blank whether YouTube, a Google subsidiary, would air the Trump ad attacking Biden:
Stahl: Facebook is facing a lot of controversy because it refuses to take down a President Trump ad about Biden which is not true. Would you run that ad?
Wojcicki: So that is an ad that, um, right now would not be a violation of our policies.
Stahl: Is it on YouTube right now?
Wojcicki: It has been on YouTube.
Wojcickiâ€™s awkward admission that YouTubeâ€™s policies allow the ad was noteworthy given that the dominant narrative in the (non-right-wing) media is that the ad is false. Not misleading, not contested, but false. â€œFacebook Wonâ€™t Pull Ads That Lieâ€� is how one New York Times print headline put it in October. Other mainstream outlets, including the Washington Post, have been comfortable similarly labeling the contents of the video. CNN refused to air it at all.
So if Google says it wonâ€™t run false political ads, why is YouTube allowing this one?
â€œThereâ€™s a difference, in our minds, between what constitutes political hyperbole versus something that could â€˜significantly undermine trust in democracy,â€™â€� said Charlotte Smith, a Google spokesperson, referring to language in Googleâ€™s November policy announcement. â€œPolitical hyperbole is not new. There are politicians that exaggerate claims all the time.â€� Googleâ€™s policy, she explained, is attempting to draw a line between the kind of dishonesty weâ€™ve long grudgingly accepted in politics, on the one hand, and out-and-out fraud, on the other.
When I asked what would run afoul of the policy, Smith gravitated toward examples of attempts to trick people out of voting. â€œAn ad saying you can vote via text messageâ€”that would be disallowed,â€� she said. â€œAn ad that gives an incorrect time for a polling place would be disallowed.â€�
But what about lies that arenâ€™t specifically about the electoral process? I asked Smith what would happen if a candidate made a clearly, objectively false claim about an opponentâ€”say, that the opponent had been arrested for selling drugs. In that case, Smith granted, the ad would be prohibited.
â€œIf this ad is making a claim that is clear that, say, Kamala Harris went to jail for dealing drugsâ€”that is demonstrably false,â€� she said. â€œIn this example, itâ€™s pretty clear that if you made a claim that somebody went to jail, you could very easily find out if they went to jail and for what reason.â€� (After this interview, Harris announced on Tuesday that she was suspending her presidential campaign.)
The anti-Biden ad, Smith suggested, doesnâ€™t feature any claims that are so clearly, black-and-white untrue. â€œJoe Biden promised Ukraine a billion dollars if they fired the prosecutor investigating his sonâ€™s company,â€� says the narrator. Then the video cuts to a clip of Biden at a public event, recalling his interaction with the Ukrainian government: â€œIf the prosecutorâ€™s not fired, youâ€™re not getting the money,â€� he recounts saying, before triumphantly concluding the story: â€œWell, son of a bitchâ€”he got fired.â€� (In the first version of the ad, â€œbitchâ€� was left un-bleeped, prompting Facebook to take it down. CBS also found that Google has taken down hundreds of Trump campaign ads since last year, but the companyâ€™s political ads archive does not display the content of those ads or why they were removed.)