By Kirsten Korosec
November 1, 2017

Google is going to make it easier for users to see who is buying election ads that show up on the company’s search engine, YouTube, and Google Display Network in response to mounting evidence that Russia used social media and online ads to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Google will now place an icon above every election ad that run on its networks. Clicking on the icon will reveal the name of the advertiser running the ad, the company’s general counsel Kent Walker said during opening remarks of a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday.

Google, and notably Facebook and Twitter, are under pressure by Congress to provide information on how social media was used by Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election. Lawyers for the three companies all testified Wednesday at the Senate hearing.

Russia’s “Internet Research Agency,” a shadowy group that pumped out divisive social media content in an effort to drive Americans apart, reached 126 million Facebook users in the U.S. over the last couple of years, according to disclosures made to Congress. The agency also put out more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and 1,100 videos on YouTube, according to the disclosures.

Google outlined its plans during the hearing on how it will make political advertising more transparent, easier for users to understand, and more secure.

The company is taking three steps:

  • It will release a transparency report for election ads in 2018 that will provide data about who is buying election ads on its platforms and how much money is being spent. Google says it will pair its transparency report with a database of election ad creatives from across its ads. The database will be available for public research.
  • It will add the icon above every election ad that shows who bought it.
  • It will enhance existing safeguards. Google only allows U.S. nationals to buy U.S. election ads. Now it will verify the identity of anyone who wants to run an election ad or use its political-interest-based tools and confirming that person is permitted to run that ad.

Google’s efforts follow similar steps announced last week by Twitter. The social media network said in an Oct. 24 blog post it was launching a transparency center that will give visibility into who is advertising on Twitter, details behind those ads, and tools that will lets users provide feedback.

Specifically, the company is going to clearly label electioneering ads to make it clear when a user is seeing or engaging with these. The ads will be labeled with a visual indicate as illustrated by Twitter in the image below.

 

Google said during the Senate committee on Wednesday it found two nefarious accounts that bought ads in connection with 2016 presidential election. The company believes that activity was limited because Google already had various safeguards in place prior to the 2016 election and that these products didn’t “lend themselves to the kind of micro-targeting or viral dissemination that these actors seemed to prefer,” Walker said in his opening remarks to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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