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Monday, May 20, 2024

Why YouTube Won’t Ban Trump’s Misleading Ads About Biden

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 Facebook’s decision. Twitter, never a big player in the political ad game, decided to get out of it entirely. In late November, Google announced that it would stop allowing political ads to target users beyond the broad categories of zip code, sex, and age—a reform that would make sure questionable claims get exposed to a wider audience that could rebut them. The company also clarified, in an implicit rebuke to Facebook, that it doesn’t treat ads for politicians differently from ads for anything else: “Whether you’re running for office or selling office furniture, we apply the same ads policies to everyone; there are no carve-outs. It’s against our policies for any advertiser to make a false claim.” While Facebook might be happy to let Trump say whatever he wants about Biden and anybody else, that apparently wouldn’t fly in Google's world.

So it seemed, that is, until Sunday night’s episode of 60 Minutes. In a segment on YouTube’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.

Wojcicki’s awkward admission that YouTube’s policies allowed the ad was noteworthy given that reports in the (not-right-wing) media are that the ad is false—not misleading, not contested, but false. “Facebook Won’t Pull Ads That Lie” is how one New York Times print headline put it in October. Other mainstream outlets, including The Washington Post, have been comfortable labeling the contents of the video as bunkum. CNN refused to air it at all.

So if Google says it won’t run false political ads, why is YouTube allowing this one?

“There’s a difference, in our minds, between what constitutes political hyperbole versus something that could ‘significantly undermine trust in democracy,’” said Charlotte Smith, a Google spokesperson, referring to language in Google’s November policy announcement. “Political hyperbole is not new. There are politicians that exaggerate claims all the time.” Google’s policy, she explained, is attempting to draw a line between the kind of dishonesty we’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. “An ad saying you can vote via text message—that would be disallowed,” she said. “An ad that gives an incorrect time for a polling place would be disallowed.”

But what about lies that aren’t specifically about the electoral process? I asked Smith what would happen if a candidate made a clearly, objectively false claim about an opponent—say, that the opponent had been arrested for selling drugs. In that case, Smith granted, the ad would be prohibited.

“If this ad is making a claim that is clear that, say, Kamala Harris went to jail for dealing drugs—that is demonstrably false,” she said. “In this example, it’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.” (After this interview, Harris announced on Tuesday that she was suspending her presidential campaign.)

The anti-Biden ad, Smith suggested, doesn’t feature claims that are so clearly and plainly untrue. “Joe Biden promised Ukraine a billion dollars if they fired the prosecutor investigating his son’s company,” says the ad's narrator. Then the video cuts to a clip of Biden at a public event, recalling his interaction with the Ukrainian government: “If the prosecutor’s not fired, you’re not getting the money,” he recounts saying, before triumphantly concluding the story: “Well, son of a bitch—he got fired.” (In the first version of the ad, “bitch” was left unbleeped, prompting Facebook to take it down. CBS also found that Google has taken down hundreds of Trump campaign ads since last year, but the company’s political ads archive does not display the content of those ads or why they were removed.)

The obvious implication of the ad is that Biden personally withheld the money to protect his son. On all available evidence, that’s nonsense. In fact, Biden was relaying the policy of the US government, which in turn reflected an international consensus that the prosecutor in question, Viktor Shokin, was refusing to investigate corruption.

But implications are different from statements of fact. If we pull apart the specific claims in the video, it’s not so easy to find one that’s provably false. Maybe Joe Biden didn’t “promise” Ukraine the money, but by his own account, he told Ukraine it was conditioned on firing Shokin—a plan that he says he helped develop. Maybe that wasn’t because of Hunter Biden’s role with Burisma, but Shokin was in charge of the office that had opened an investigation into the company a few years earlier. The insinuation might be dishonest, but the constituent pieces are all at least true-ish.

The distinction is not merely technical. Serving an ominous slurry of truth-adjacent claims about a candidate, while stopping just shy of stating the obvious, bullshit implication, is the classic structure of a sleazy American attack ad. That’s a problem, but it doesn’t mean Facebook and Google should be the ones to solve it. In fact, Google’s position is already tougher on misinformation than the regulations governing broadcast television, which don’t even allow networks to stop politicians from telling obvious lies.

More broadly, the distinction matters because democratic politics fundamentally is, or at least ought to be, about whose interpretation of the facts voters believe. Politics, in other words, is a battle of competing implications. When Mark Zuckerberg defended allowing politicians to lie on Facebook by saying that “in a democracy, I believe people should decide what is credible, not tech companies,” he was widely ridiculed for trying to evade responsibility for facilitating misinformation. But his comment contained a nugget of wisdom: Asking Facebook and Google to ban false implications, as opposed to demonstrable lies, would in a sense be asking the platforms to do voters’ work for them.

All politicians say things that aren't true. One of the things that makes Trump so unique is his rare penchant for lies that are extremely easy to expose. So far, his official campaign communications haven’t fully assimilated that part of his identity. The bigger test to Google and Facebook’s political ad policies will come if and when that happens.

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