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Spotify To Halt Political Ads In 2020 As Tech Giants Grapple With Politicization

In a social media political landscape increasingly bought and influenced, giants in the industry have drawn lines clarifying their involvement, or lack thereof, in impacting the US presidential election in 2020.

As 2020 fast approaches we will all be inundated with political advertising, no more so than those living in battleground swing states. However, thus far it appears the political advertising landscape will look different from the recent 2016 election.

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Spotify is the latest large tech company to define its stance in political advertising when they told Ad Age that they will be suspending political advertising on the platform in early 2020.

Spotify Joins Twitter In Regulating Political Ads

The Spotify announcement brings them in line with Twitter’s stance. Twitter CEO and founder Jack Dorsey announced on October 30th that “We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought…”

Dorsey argues that political ads should be earned and not bought, adding that political advertisements allow people to manipulate and influence votes in elections. The difficulty in regulating and preventing false and misleading advertising is difficult enough, without adding in the complexity of accepting money for political advertising.

Dorsey calls for political ad regulation while noting that the point of political ad regulation is not to stifle free speech but about paying for increased reach.

The regulation of political advertising on Spotify will impact only U.S. customers because the company only sold political ads in the United States previously. This will impact 141 million users, although this change may go unnoticed as people may not realize the change.

“At this point in time, we do not yet have the necessary level of robustness in our process, systems, and tools to responsibly validate and review this content,” Spotify told Ad Age. “We will reassess this decision as we continue to evolve our capabilities.”

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Google’s Stance: Limit Political Ads

Google is in the business of advertising. Google is the largest advertisement selling company in the world. In 2018 Google made $116.3 billion in advertising revenue, accounting for 32% of the global digital ad revenue.

Given Google’s behemoth size in digital advertising, their stance when it comes to political advertising is influential and impactful.

In November Scott Spencer, VP of Product Management for Google Ads released a statement outlining Google’s stance on political advertising with the upcoming presidential election.

“While we’ve never offered granular microtargeting of election ads, we believe there’s more we can do to further promote increased visibility of election ads.” Spencer wrote,” That’s why we’re limiting election ads audience targeting to the following general categories: age, gender, and general location (postal code level).”

Thus Google will limit advertisers’ ability to target specific niches that could manipulate voting and increase the reach of fake news. However, Google has not gone as far as Twitter in completely banning political ads.

This results in a system that can still be manipulated but is a bit harder to do so. For example, you can’t advertise to someone because they are democrat, are pro-life or support gay marriage. However, you can advertise for keyword search terms such as “democrat,” “pro-life,” and “gay marriage.” People can still cleverly find and specify their search advertising criteria to target a certain audience group.

If you are the NRA you can still advertise for search terms like “pro gun rights,” while a group supporting anti-gun violence can advertise for search terms like “protect schools from gun violence.”

Google has developed a transparency report indicating political advertising spending in the United States and internationally.

As of writing this, there have been 198,485 political ads since May 31, 2018, which totaled $155,217,900. The state with the most spent on political advertising is California, with $15.2 million spent.

You can click on any given state and see the district by district breakdown of spending as well. Scroll down a bit and you will notice a list of the top advertisers so far. Presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg tops the list with over $13 million spent. This comes to no surprise as Bloomberg has spent over $100 million in total on advertising in just one month.

Most of the campaigns above are for specific candidates, mostly for president. While a party can’t run political ads targeting specific people in their political party, they can run ads that target certain hot topic items that their voters would be interested in.

While Google’s policies make it more difficult to run advertisements influencing the upcoming election, it doesn’t make it impossible.

Some argue that the imperfect implementation of Google’s advertising policy allows it to be gamed and thus doesn’t fully meet their goals. On the other hand, completely sitting out of political advertising for Spotify and Twitter makes it possible for them to ignore instead of fixing the underlying problem. Hopefully, Spotify and Twitter will take this time to implement standards to allow political advertising while preventing false, misleading and outside the US political influence.

Facebook Decides To Ignore Political Gaming On Its Platform

Perhaps the most controversial stances a company has made when it comes to political advertising is Facebook’s. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech at Georgetown University on their stance with regard to political advertising.

Anthony Quintano / Flickr CC By 2.0

“The long journey towards greater progress requires confronting ideas that challenge us.” Zuckerberg warned, “I’m here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression.”

Facebook has said that not only will it not limit political advertising on its platform but it will not regulate false and misleading political advertising. In the meantime, Facebook is internally discussing whether it will limit how advertisers can target certain user groups on the platform.

We know from studies that targeted political ads showing a bias can change the voting behavior and perception of those that see the ads. A research paper published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking found that people can be persuaded by political advertising but are warier when they know it has been sponsored or targeted toward them specifically.

The short yet complicated and controversial history of social media in US presidential elections will certainly continue on into 2020 as we see more money and effort spent on swaying voters to their cause. The battle lines between political candidates will have to both work within the technical and self-regulatory limits of social media giants with the ultimate goal of buying voters through advertising and at as low of a cost as possible.

After all, advertising works and in the political sphere, it’s proven to be both dangerous and effective.

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