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Banning digital political ads gives extremists a distinct advantage

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Jack Dorsey’s announcement that Twitter will no longer run political ads because “political messages reach should be earned, not bought” has been welcomed as a thoughtful and statesmanlike contrast to Mark Zuckerberg’s and Facebook’s greedy acceptance of “political ads that lie.” While the 240-character policy sounds compelling, it’s both flawed in principle and, I fear, counterproductive in practice.

First: like it or hate it, the U.S. political system is drowning in money. In 2018, a non-presidential year, it is estimated that over $9B was spent on the U.S. elections. And unless laws change, more will continue to flow. Banning digital ads will not reduce the amount of money in politics, and will simply shift it to less transparent channels. In an ideal world, it would be great if all “political messages were earned and not bought,”  but that is not how our system works. Candidates, Super PACs, C4s and others already allow the majority of their budgets to be swallowed up by other, less visible, accountable and cost-effective, channels — including television, mail, telephone, and radio.

More likely, at least some of the money will end up with even less transparent organizations that aren’t deemed “political,” but very much are.

Second, banning digital political ads will not only hurt the very candidates people should want to help, it will also damage our democratic process. Analog mediums are significantly more expensive and inefficient than digital ones, so candidates who have a lot of money and/or have spent time cultivating their followings will continue to dominate. In other words, incumbent candidates, rich people and reality TV stars enjoy an outsized advantage when digital advertising is denied.

A recent Stanford study found that, at the state house level, more than 10 times as many candidates advertise on Facebook than advertise on television. The research found that digital ads lowers advertising costs, which expands the set of candidates for whom advertising — and thus the potential to reach voters and seriously contest an election — is a real possibility. 

Lesser well-known, but often highly-qualified candidates at the state, local and federal level are precisely the people who have been celebrated for their new perspectives, creative ideas and commitment to shake up the system. People who put their heads down, do good work in their communities and decide to run because they want to make a difference will be the ones that are disadvantaged.

You know who gets plenty of earned media opportunities? Donald Trump. He will be fine. In fact, he will be better than fine because we’ve just handed him and more extremist candidates like him a distinct advantage.

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Democracy is about the combination of free speech and transparency. As the old adage goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant, so here are a few ideas that would be more effective than a ban:

  • Adding a “nutrition label” to political ads offers a more accessible, understandable and consistent way to identify the identities of the funder, their location, their budget and their target audience. This should be easily accessed, in any political ad via one click, just like we know where to find nutrition information on food we buy.
  • Enhance “consumer beware” acknowledgments so that if digital political ads remain exempt from fact-checking (as they mostly are on television), platforms have a duty to make that clear with visual signals and user education.

Ultimately, decisions about what is permissible political speech and appropriate distribution and targeting is too important to be left to technology platforms and their conceptions of the public interest.

Do we want Google, Facebook and Twitter making the rules for all political ads and being responsible for enforcing them? What we need is a true oversight body — one with teeth. If non-political advertisers make false claims about their own products or those of their competitors, they can be fined by the FTC. This is an acknowledgment, not only that consumers need accurate facts, but also that companies can not police themselves. This is far too much power for them.

This isn’t a way to let technology companies off the hook, as there is plenty more they can do as noted above. But we need a truly independent organization overseeing political ads — the rules that govern them and holding organizations accountable to following those rules. Is this the FEC? I’m not sure.

As I write this today, I worry that no agency truly has the capacity or the expertise to create these rules and challenge bad campaign practices. We should remedy this post-haste and get to finding true solutions. The alternative seems easier and even principled to fight for, but the unintended consequences will be swift — a government full of the types of people who we say we don’t want.

NEWS

Google December Product Reviews Update Affects More Than English Language Sites? via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s Product Reviews update was announced to be rolling out to the English language. No mention was made as to if or when it would roll out to other languages. Mueller answered a question as to whether it is rolling out to other languages.

Google December 2021 Product Reviews Update

On December 1, 2021, Google announced on Twitter that a Product Review update would be rolling out that would focus on English language web pages.

The focus of the update was for improving the quality of reviews shown in Google search, specifically targeting review sites.

A Googler tweeted a description of the kinds of sites that would be targeted for demotion in the search rankings:

“Mainly relevant to sites that post articles reviewing products.

Think of sites like “best TVs under $200″.com.

Goal is to improve the quality and usefulness of reviews we show users.”

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Google also published a blog post with more guidance on the product review update that introduced two new best practices that Google’s algorithm would be looking for.

The first best practice was a requirement of evidence that a product was actually handled and reviewed.

The second best practice was to provide links to more than one place that a user could purchase the product.

The Twitter announcement stated that it was rolling out to English language websites. The blog post did not mention what languages it was rolling out to nor did the blog post specify that the product review update was limited to the English language.

Google’s Mueller Thinking About Product Reviews Update

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Product Review Update Targets More Languages?

The person asking the question was rightly under the impression that the product review update only affected English language search results.

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But he asserted that he was seeing search volatility in the German language that appears to be related to Google’s December 2021 Product Review Update.

This is his question:

“I was seeing some movements in German search as well.

So I was wondering if there could also be an effect on websites in other languages by this product reviews update… because we had lots of movement and volatility in the last weeks.

…My question is, is it possible that the product reviews update affects other sites as well?”

John Mueller answered:

“I don’t know… like other languages?

My assumption was this was global and and across all languages.

But I don’t know what we announced in the blog post specifically.

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But usually we try to push the engineering team to make a decision on that so that we can document it properly in the blog post.

I don’t know if that happened with the product reviews update. I don’t recall the complete blog post.

But it’s… from my point of view it seems like something that we could be doing in multiple languages and wouldn’t be tied to English.

And even if it were English initially, it feels like something that is relevant across the board, and we should try to find ways to roll that out to other languages over time as well.

So I’m not particularly surprised that you see changes in Germany.

But I also don’t know what we actually announced with regards to the locations and languages that are involved.”

Does Product Reviews Update Affect More Languages?

While the tweeted announcement specified that the product reviews update was limited to the English language the official blog post did not mention any such limitations.

Google’s John Mueller offered his opinion that the product reviews update is something that Google could do in multiple languages.

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One must wonder if the tweet was meant to communicate that the update was rolling out first in English and subsequently to other languages.

It’s unclear if the product reviews update was rolled out globally to more languages. Hopefully Google will clarify this soon.

Citations

Google Blog Post About Product Reviews Update

Product reviews update and your site

Google’s New Product Reviews Guidelines

Write high quality product reviews

John Mueller Discusses If Product Reviews Update Is Global

Watch Mueller answer the question at the 14:00 Minute Mark

[embedded content]

Searchenginejournal.com

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