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Social Media Platforms Roll Out New Rules For Political Ads


The election may be a year away, but political ad spending by some candidates is already in the millions. Tech companies trying to respond to the lessons of 2016 are playing catch-up and have recently issued rules on what kinds of ads they will allow on their platforms.

As we've discussed before on this program, Facebook said last month that it would not fact-check political ads. Twitter now says it will ban all political ads. And this week, Google issued its own rules. Political ads will be allowed, but how political advertisers target specific audiences will be restricted. For instance, advertisers will be able to target people based on their gender or zip code or age but not on their political affiliation.

We wanted to try to make sense of these different approaches, so we've called Kara Swisher once again. She's editor-at-large for the technology website Recode and a contributing opinion writer to The New York Times.

Kara Swisher, thanks so much for joining us once again.

KARA SWISHER: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: So, first, what effect do you think Google's new advertising rules will have?

SWISHER: Well, you know, it's just - it's an ongoing shift of tech companies in this area to take responsibility for the political ads and do something about them. They had been pretty much a Wild West. And so what's happened is Twitter's gone all-out, like, forget it. We're not doing it. And it mattered a lot from a symbolic point of view. But Twitter's a very small player in this game. It's really pretty much Google and largely Facebook.

And so what's happening here is you have one company saying we're not going to do it, another one making really significant adjustments to how it's going to allow people to buy political advertising. And so now the onus is on Facebook to see what it's going to do. And given it's the most important player, everybody's sort of waiting with bated breath.

MARTIN: What do you think is driving those different approaches?

SWISHER: They're different companies. You know, and they have different points of view. Facebook has much more so been hands-off. You know, Mark Zuckerberg really runs the company and controls everything in the company, and so this is his feeling. And he's kind of falsely tried to link it with free speech. He has a point that, should these companies be editing political speech? That's a really thorny question. But the issue is allowing these campaigns to microtarget people. It opens the door for all kinds of manipulation and lack of scrutiny, really.

MARTIN: One of the effects of microtargeting is that you can tailor a lie to the people most likely to believe that lie.

SWISHER: Or tell the truth.

MARTIN: Or truth. Or truth - fair point. And the whole point of microtargeting is that it's directed at people who are most likely to be amenable to it. Is there some mechanism of accountability here?

SWISHER: Well, they're saying they're just not going to sell them. I mean, that's going to be very clear. You're not going to be able to buy them. And if, say, a reporter goes in and is able to buy them, then they aren't doing what they said they're going to do. Now, not everybody - look, the Trump campaign is the one that's used it most effectively, these techniques. But other groups, grassroot groups, say this is a really good tool for finding unregistered voters. And that might hurt that.

There are - you know, it's just - it's a push-pull kind of thing, and not everybody in politics likes this because microtargeting has been an amazing tool for a lot of these politicians and issues groups. And so the question is, how much should be allowed, and who should be able to do it? But the problem is, it's been open to so much abuse that something has to be done.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, does Google's position throw down the gauntlet to Facebook in any way here?

SWISHER: Absolutely. The only companies that matter here are Google and Facebook, period - across the world, really, because they control so much data. They control so much of the distribution. So the question is, will Facebook do something? How much pressure will it get from people not to do something? And will they - will the solutions they come up with be effective or not?

But they definitely are now in the position of having to react rather than be a leader, and that's typical of Facebook. They never make - every time they make a mistake, it takes 90 disasters before they change their policy. So we'll see.

MARTIN: That's Kara Swisher. She is editor at large for the technology website Recode and host of the "Recode Decode" podcast.

Kara Swisher, thanks so much for talking to us once again.

SWISHER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.