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By Emily Glazer and Patience Haggin
Google set up a searchable database of political ads last summer, following calls for greater transparency in the wake of Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Nearly a year later, the search giant's archive of political ads is fraught with errors and delays, according to campaigns' digital staffers and political consultants. The database, the Google Transparency Report, doesn't always record political ads bought with Google's ad tools and in some instances hasn't updated for weeks at a time, they say.
Several campaigns, including those of Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have run ads in recent weeks that didn't appear in the Google archive, people familiar with the campaigns' ad-buying said. Such mistakes have occurred for presidential and congressional candidates in both parties.
A Google spokeswoman said in a statement, "We are constantly working to improve the report and appreciate feedback on how we can make it better."
Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., is a powerhouse in sales of digital political advertising. Mistakes and glitches in its archive could give more fuel to the company's critics at a time when it and other tech giants are under scrutiny in Washington over their market power, privacy lapses and difficulties tracking content on their platforms.
Omissions in the database also raise the prospect, political digital consultants and election watchdogs say, that Google could be missing ads run by parties looking to influence the coming election by boosting or disparaging certain candidates, as Russian entities were found to have done.
"If even the political advertisers that expect to be included in the archive are not seeing their ads made publicly available, how much is escaping disclosure by actors who want to stay secret?" said Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.
The extent of the discrepancies couldn't be fully determined. Google's database has logged more than 115,000 ads.
For the political campaigns, including a crowded field of 2020 presidential hopefuls, database inaccuracies are making it harder to track rivals at a time when digital advertising is central for campaigns looking to target voters more economically than through television advertising.
Spending on political digital advertising is projected to hit $3.3 billion in 2020, up from $1.4 billion in 2016, according to Borrell Associates Inc. That compares with a projected $4.7 billion in political spending on broadcast TV in 2020, up from $4.4 billion in 2016.
Facebook Inc. launched its own advertising archive in mid-2018, and it reports ads designated as political in the Facebook Ad Library Report. Both it and Google vowed to be more transparent after acknowledging that Russian entities had purchased election-focused ads on their platforms.
Google's transparency report tracks ads that promote current federal officeholders as well as candidates for Congress, the vice presidency and the presidency, according to its website. Ad buyers are expected to mark their ads as political by entering their organization's Federal Election Commission ID or tax ID when they make the purchase.
Google archives political ads purchased through its two ad-buying tools: Google Ads, and Display & Video 360. Candidates can use rival buying tools to purchase digital ads that will go through Google's marketplaces and appear on sites around the web, but they won't end up in the Google archive. The Warren and Sanders ads were purchased using Google tools, the people familiar with their ad-buying said.
Google says it has systems to detect political ads from buyers who don't classify them properly by adding the federal election or tax ID, and declined to provide more details. "We don't go publicly into our enforcement processes and how it works. But we review all ads for compliance with all our policies," a spokesman said.
Some in the industry said that while Google's archive is imperfect, it is still a formidable resource. "They're doing a remarkable job at capturing a lot of what's happening -- and there's always room for improvement," said Mark Jablonowski, managing partner at DS Political, a political digital-ad firm.
Google's archive tracks ads by candidate but not by political issue, such as illegal immigration or gun control -- a point of frustration for advocates of stricter disclosure laws, since some ads bought by Russia-affiliated entities in 2016 were issue-focused. The Google spokeswoman said the company is looking to expand coverage to issues advertising.
Facebook, on the other hand, faced criticism not for missing political ads, but for casting its net too wide. News publishers complained on some occasions that Facebook flagged paid posts promoting news articles as political ads. It eventually exempted news articles from its political ad archive.
More than a dozen Democratic and Republican strategists, including some working on presidential campaigns, said they first noticed problems with Google's ad archive system in the 2018 midterm campaigns and have seen them continue into the 2020 season.
In the current cycle, President Trump and 23 Democratic presidential candidates have spent about $12.7 million so far on digital ads from Google, including $5.1 million by Mr. Trump alone, according to data compiled by Acronym, a left-leaning nonprofit that tracks digital spending.
In the 2018 midterm election season, Google attracted about 10% of the total $623 million spent on digital advertising, according to estimates by Tech for Campaigns, a technology nonprofit geared toward left-leaning and centrist campaigns.
In her unsuccessful 2018 bid for the House, Texas Democratic candidate MJ Hegar spent more than $100,000 on digital ads through Google -- yet less than half of that spending was reflected in Google's ad archive, according to Ryan Irvin, president of Change Media Group, which purchased ads for the campaign.
Ms. Hegar's campaign spent thousands of dollars to promote a 3-minute-28-second campaign video as an ad on Google's YouTube in September 2018, according to a person familiar with the matter. This advertising didn't appear in Google's archive as of July 15.
Ms. Hegar is running for a Senate seat in 2020, and Google's ad archive has additional discrepancies in tracking her spending. According to data in the archive, "MJ for Texas" bought ads in June 2019 to promote another Texas candidate's House campaign, Kim Olson for Congress.
A person familiar with the matter said Ms. Hegar's campaign hasn't purchased ads promoting Ms. Olson's campaign.
A Google spokeswoman, referring to the missing Hegar ads, said in a statement, "Due to a mistake on our end, not all the ads from this advertiser were displayed in the report. We have identified the missing ads and they will be included in the report in the next update." Referring to the Olson ads incorrectly attributed to Hegar, the Google spokeswoman said Google was looking into the issue.
A political consultant who worked on a campaign for a Midwestern congressional candidate during the 2018 cycle said thousands of dollars of online display ads for the candidate didn't show up in Google's archive.
Quartz, a news website, also recently reported that ads run by Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke's campaign didn't show up in Google's ad archive. The Google spokeswoman said that there was an "error in our enforcement process."
The Google spokeswoman said it updates its transparency report weekly, though updates have occasionally taken longer. There were at least two separate weekslong instances this past winter and spring when Google's ad archive didn't update at all, political consultants said.
The archive can be searched by format, including video, image and text. Ads are sometimes categorized improperly, with a video ad showing up in the text category, for example. Google is looking into this issue, the spokeswoman said.
In other cases, the archive lists a candidate's ad but doesn't show the content, as it did this spring with ads for Mr. Trump, Mr. O'Rourke and Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.), who also is running for president.
In addition to the archive, Google has had other hiccups in its political ad operation. The company has a policy against showing political ads in Gmail, but ads for Ms. Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.), another presidential candidate, have appeared there, according to a person familiar with the matter and a screenshot reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
"I think it's a fair question whether Google has a handle on how ads are showing up on its page and not in its archives," said Katherine Haenschen, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech who has studied the tech platforms' resistance to regulation of digital advertising. If tech giants like Google "don't have a sufficient handle on their own technology, why should they be allowed to regulate themselves?"
Write to Emily Glazer at firstname.lastname@example.org and Patience Haggin at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
July 17, 2019 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)
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