Google misrepresentation

This is the online version of the Popular Information newsletter. You can get independent accountability journalism in your inbox every week. Sign up here:


The Trump campaign is running a video ad on YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, which claims that Trump released a transcript of his call with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The entire premise of the video is that since Trump has released the transcript, the impeachment inquiry is baseless. 

The ad has been viewed over 900,000 times since it was published on September 27. 

It is also a lie. Trump has not released a transcript of his call with the Ukranian president. The document released by the White House summarizing the call specifically says it is not a "transcript." It is "notes and recollections" of National Security Council staff "assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form." 

The document includes "ellipses — punctuation indicating that information has been deleted for clarity or other reasons — that traditionally have not appeared in summaries of presidential calls with foreign leaders." That has "fueled questions about what may have been removed and why."

The ad also appears to be in violation of Google's advertising policies. Google says that it prohibits "misrepresentation" in ads. The company asserts that it doesn't "want users to feel misled by ads, so we strive to ensure ads are clear and honest, and provide the information that users need to make informed decisions." Specifically, Google prohibits ads that "intend to deceive users by excluding relevant information or giving misleading information." 

Google says misinformation includes "collecting donations under false pretenses."

Trump's ad misinforms viewers about the release of the transcript and then uses that misinformation to induce viewers to send a text message. Viewers then receive a link which, after a short survey, solicits a political donation. 

Google told Popular Information that the ad does not violate its policies. "All ads that run on our platform have to comply with our ads policies. For political advertisers, we have additional requirements such as verification of the advertiser, a paid-for-by disclosure, and inclusion in our political ads Transparency Report," a YouTube spokesperson told Popular Information.

Google questioned whether the ad actually contains misrepresentations since it relied on clips of broadcasts, rather than an original video. The ad is relying on television clips from moments after the document was released when there was substantial confusion about the nature of the document.

Google said that, even if the ad contained a misrepresentation, the policy would not apply to this ad. According to Google, is policy is limited to specific kinds of misrepresentations like misrepresenting the nature of the entity placing the ad. The policy itself, however, does not explicitly contain such a limitation. 

Google has also said that an ad making false claims about Joe Biden's actions in Ukraine does not violate its policies. A similar ad has run millions of times on Facebook. Earlier this month, Popular Information reported that Facebook's official policy is that politicians can lie in ads. Google's policy does not appear to be as direct, but the impact is roughly the same. 

Trump betting big on YouTube

For much of the campaign, Trump's ad spending on Facebook has dwarfed his spending on YouTube and other Google properties. But that is quickly changing. In the last week, where data is available, Trump's spending on Google properties exceeded $400,000.

Trump is currently spending about $580,000 per week on Facebook. Recently, Trump's ad spending on Facebook peaked at over $1.6 million per week. Overall, Trump has spent more than $8 million for ads on YouTube and other Google properties since May 2018.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Google is "is stepping up its efforts to snag more political-ad dollars away from local television and Facebook." It recently rolled out a new tool, called "Instant Reserve," that allows political campaigns to reserve ad space targeting key localities months in advance. In November, "Google plans to let ad buyers reserve slots on YouTube for the entirety of 2020." 

The company "has been eager to show political advertisers it can target audiences more effectively on YouTube than TV can." YouTube has been working to convince political campaigns that it can identify groups of "persuadable voters." The company has shared research with campaigns about how to target subgroups of swing voters, with names like “bargain hunters” and “30-minute chefs.”

Google's transparency report lacks transparency

Trump's advertisements and spending are released through Google's "transparency report." But this transparency report has a critical flaw: it is only updated once per week. Therefore, by the time ads are disclosed to the public, many of them are no longer running. This defeats one of the primary purposes of a transparency report, which is to allow the public to report ads that may violate Google's rules.

In response to questions from Popular Information, Google offered no explanation as to why its transparency report is updated so infrequently. The company specializes in near-instantaneous updates to its search index, so the decision to delay updates to the transparency report appears to be intentional. 

Facebook updates its ad database in real-time. 

Facebook attacks Warren on Twitter

Elizabeth Warren has been critical of Facebook's decision, first reported in Popular Information, to let politicians lie in political ads. To dramatize the problems with the policy, Warren took out an ad that falsely claimed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had endorsed Donald Trump. 

Facebook approved the ad but criticized Warren directly using its "Facebook Newsroom" account on Twitter.

Facebook's decision to use its platform to criticize a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination is remarkable. Trump, for example, has repeatedly criticized Facebook in harsh terms. 

The Facebook Newsroom Twitter account has never mentioned Trump. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently described Warren as an "existential" threat to the company in a company meeting. 

Although Zuckerberg's comments have prompted concern that Facebook will tip the scales against Warren and others that favor stricter regulation of the company, Charlie Warzel, in a New York Times column, argues that isn't even necessary. "With its algorithmic mandate of engagement over all else, Facebook has redefined what it means to be a good candidate — and provided a distinct natural advantage to those who distort the truth and seek to divide," Warzel writes. 


Thanks for reading!