Google’s “election ads” Policy and Ad Library are a failure of transparency

Google, like Meta and Snapchat, offers a political advertising library for the purposes of transparency. Their ad library launched in 2019, offering a listing of all “election ads” since.

On paper, this sounds useful, potentially serving the two purposes of political ad transparency, namely 1) showing that bad actors aren’t abusing their systems and 2) helping voters, journalists and researchers (like us) use the data to better understand the ways in which ads are being used by legitimate, mainstream political actors and to better hold them to account.

Sadly, Google’s definition of a “political ad” means that neither of these things is possible.

For the UK, the ads covered are (and here we quote from their policy statement):

“Election ads include ads that feature:

  • a political party, current elected officeholder, or candidate for the UK Parliament
  • a referendum question up for vote, a referendum campaign group, or a call to vote related to a national referendum or a regional referendum on sovereignty.”

This is a much narrower definition than Meta’s equivalent, which includes issue ads, is more topic- than actor- focused and is “always on”. Since launch, Meta’s Ad Library includes over £143M of advertising in the UK. Google’s has just £2.0M of ads. For the last 3 months, Meta provides transparency data about £7.5M worth of ads, Google, just £14,350 (0.2% of Meta’s total).

The literal reading of Google’s policy would say that ad transparency is only about national politics. A Google rep confirmed this to us, stating that the ads that did run for the recent UK local elections would not be included.

The timeframe the policy applies to is also very short, applying only when someone formally becomes a candidate. We already know a great number of these for the 2024 election, but they don’t actually become a candidate until their nomination papers are submitted (“by 4pm on the 19th working day before the poll”). Based on this definition, and their own policy, Google only provides maximal political ad transparency for the UK for around four weeks every five or so years. The rest of the time, we see almost nothing.

This means we can learn nothing about:

  • How bad actors, or lobbyists or astroturf campaigns use ads to seek to influence electoral politics or the process of government.
  • How campaign groups, from all sides of the aisle, seek to mobilise and persuade around political issues.
  • What happens in local elections, mayoral campaigns, Scottish Parliament, Welsh or Northern Irish assemblies.

It’s also unclear how political parties are treated. Google’s data includes no recent ads from Labour (who told us that they did run ads there during the recent local election campaign). This seems to suggest Google decided Labour ads during this period were 100% for local election purposes, rather than carrying any nationally relevant message, and should be ignored. If that wasn’t it, then they were simply missed, which would be a much worse problem.

We’re talking about the UK here, but other countries (such as Spain, which has very short election periods) get even less transparency. If you’re in Europe, but outside the EU or UK, or in Africa or most of Asia or Central or South America, you get no transparency at all, as Google’s ad library only operates in 37 (of 195) countries. It is therefore highly likely that many millions of pounds (euros, dollars, rupees, pesos etc) of political and issue advertising that would be available in Meta’s ad library is completely ignored under Google’s rules. It’s a huge failure of transparency.

Moving beyond the written policy to its implementation, the question is whether Google follows its own rules accurately. We don’t believe they do.

To illustrate this, we looked at the last 90 days of UK data, which includes the period when the local election campaigns were taking place. It includes a handful of Scottish Labour ads (who are not running for UK Parliament, but might count as an “elected officeholder”), with almost all other ads being for newspapers (also not running for Parliament, and none of them featuring an elected office holder). There are also a tiny selection of local election ads from one or two wards, a further inconsistency.

The data also shows no ads at all for the four by-election campaigns currently taking place. These should qualify, as all candidates are running for UK Parliament. Is it possible that none are running any ads with Google? Perhaps – political parties and politicians do use more Meta ads than Google ads (lots of the campaigns do have current, active Meta campaigns). Unfortunately, due to Google’s lack of transparency, we have no way of knowing for sure.

In sum, the data they provide appears to be an inconsistent mess.

(At this point we will note that Google has made one small move to improve the trustworthiness of political advertising on their platform. By removing targeting options such as the use of 3rd party data and interest-based targeting, their political ads are easier to ‘read’ than are Meta’s political ads, many of which are targeted using opaque ‘Custom Audiences’ and computed ‘Interest’ categories.)

Google’s transparency failures appear intentional. Over the last five or so years, their lack of transparency has served their PR goals well. Post “Cambridge Analytica” and “Russia 2016”, Meta has taken most of the heat for failures of policy and transparency. Now, by providing more data, they also receive more scrutiny and analysis. In the meantime, Google has been quite happy to provide transparency-in-name-only, while sitting back and watching their main competitor suffer.

In reality the platforms have been waiting for regulation. New laws should mean more clarity and some common standards about what’s “in scope” for ad transparency. In the meantime, they get to choose their own approach, based almost entirely on the level of external (mainly press) scrutiny. In the EU, after a long wait, the regulation of political advertising is finally moving forward (albeit slower than planned), but in the UK and US, there are no new plans at this time. It’ll be tight, but some new rules may be in place before next year’s EU Parliament elections.

In 2024, 2bn+ people will go to the polls around the world. Over the next 18 months, hundreds of millions of them will stumble across political ads on Google’s Search and Display networks, as well as on YouTube. But if they have questions about them, they won’t find it easy to get answers. In its current form, Google’s lazy effort at political ad transparency isn’t designed to help.