Twitter Details Political Ad Ban Strategy

On November 15, Twitter tightened its political ads ban to include references to political candidates, legislation, or ads that advocate for certain social or political cause outcomes. Twitter announced the political ad ban in October without details. The ban is expected to go into effect on November 22. Twitter has defined political content as anything referencing “a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive, or judicial outcome.” To enforce the ban, Twitter will use technology and a team of people.

This self-regulation comes ahead of the 2020 Presidential elections as social media companies face increasing pressure to not accept ads, especially those that could spread false information and sway an election.  Social media was widely reported as a major vector for fake news and foreign interference in elections in recent years, including the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections and the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom.

“We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said when he announced the ban.

Twitter is taking responsibility for the content on its platform, including political ads. However, Facebook believes it is not its place to be regulating ads and deciding if an ad contains misinformation. Vox reported, “When it comes to substantive changes, the social media giant keeps saying it’s government regulators’ responsibility to figure out what to do. Facebook knows that Washington, DC, moves slowly; it will be a long time, if ever, before US lawmakers pass regulations on issues such as privacy, data collection, and ads for social media platforms. And so in the meantime, Facebook gets to keep calling the shots — and avoiding responsibility when it doesn’t.”

Twitter is limiting the ways advertisers can reach their users; they can target at the state level, but not by zip-code. An advocacy group can raise awareness about an issue but cannot call out politicians who support or do not support their cause; they can also raise awareness about an issue, but cannot include a call to action, which would often imply or require legislation. The ban exempts news publishers from the ban; they may advertise fact-based reporting, but cannot buy ads for political endorsement or banned topics. The news publication exemption could prove difficult to enforce, as it requires a threshold determination as to what comprises fact-based reporting as opposed to political advocacy.

On the other hand, Facebook said it would not look at political ads for false claims, citing a desire to not suppress political speech. This illustrated a stark contrast between Twitter’s self-regulation and Facebook’s lack thereof. Google has remained silent on the matter. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, makes 84 percent of its revenue from advertising. Twitter’s move could put pressure on companies like Facebook and Google to implement similar policies. Facebook and Google have more political advertising than Twitter, so a policy change from them would significantly impact the field.

“If Facebook considers eliminating things like microtargeting, that’s when we would panic,” Eric Wilson, a political strategist, told Reuters. “He said the platform has been the best vehicle for raising grassroots support, and a similar ban could hurt candidates that do not accept large donations from corporations and political action committees (PACs).”