Twitter’s Political Ad Ban: What Does It Mean?

Twitter's political ad ban walks a fine line, attempting to determine what is and what is not political.

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On Friday, Twitter unveiled the first iteration of its new policy surrounding political advertisements on its platform. Just over two weeks ago, amid controversy over Facebook’s policy that allows politicians to run ads without being fact-checked by the social media platform, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that Twitter would be completely banning political ads– in sharp contrast to Facebook’s policy. The announcement was widely praised, but it also raised a lot of questions about what exactly constitutes a political ad and how exactly Twitter would be able to execute the ban. 

Twitter won’t enforce its new policies around political ads until November 22, and it says it plans to roll out more information before then. But it’s been moving fast.

Twitter’s initial announcement of its political ads ban was in many ways a public relations win for the company — political advertising isn’t a big part of its overall revenue (just $3 million in the 2018 midterms out of $3 billion in total revenue for the company that year). But given all of the public outcry over Facebook’s policy of not in any way fact-checking ads from politicians, it was a quick way to get a PR win over their biggest competitor.

The announcement has received a lot of praise, in particular from leading Democratic figures, but obviously far less enthusiasm from those who create, run, or research political advertising. Or even just people are strong proponents of the first amendment. And as others have pointed out, there’s lots of room for nuanced digital ad policy between Facebook’s “everything goes” model and Twitter’s complete ban. 

As The Guardian pointed out, the initial announcement of the ban revealed a policy that was unnecessarily severe and simplistic. It would have not only barred campaign or political party ads but also political “issue” ads. So what exactly s a political “issue” ad? Well herein lies the problem. It’s hard to say because there’s a very slippery slope involved in determining what exactly qualifies as political.

Perhaps that’s why Twitter decided to back away from that minefield and eliminated “issue” ads from the ban. But a move to ban political content still puts Twitter in the position of arbitrating political speech, as it must decide what is – and what is not – political. Identifying candidate ads is relatively straightforward, but identifying other political content is not so easy.

As of now, the ban is set to be enforced at the end of this week. And although it won’t target political “issues” it will still ban political content, defining that as “content that references a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive, or judicial outcome.” Ads containing political content, such as voting or fundraising appeals and ads that advocate for and against political content, are also barred. Candidates, political parties, and elected or appointed government officials will not be allowed to run ads of any kind, and in the U.S. that will apply to PACs, super PACs, and 501(c)(4)s as well.

Twitter says it will allow ads with messages about issues such as civil engagement, the economy, the environment, and social equity, but they can’t advocate for or against a specific political, judicial, legislative, or regulatory outcome related to those matters. Basically, advertisers can talk about those topics, but they can’t push a specific result on them. So, as Vox points out, a group could for example put out an ad warning against the dangers of climate change, but it presumably can’t encourage the passage of the Green New Deal, or direct people to a candidate’s homepage.

There will also be restrictions on micro-targeting, a tool advertisers use to try to reach the people they believe will be most receptive to their messages. Any group or person trying to put out ads about a cause will only be able to target at the state or regional, not local, level and can’t use keywords targeting political demographics, such as conservative or liberal. 

For-profit organizations can run cause-related ads, but they’re not supposed to be ones aimed at driving a political outcome but instead tied to the organization’s “publicly stated values, principles, and/or beliefs.” In other words, a company like Exxon can run an ad showing the benefits of fracking, but they can’t run an ad that promotes a piece of legislation that would allow fracking somewhere. Outlets Twitter defines as “news publishers” will be able to run ads, assuming they aren’t pushing political beliefs or advocating for or a political campaign.

So what are the real ramifications of the ban? It’s hard to know the full extent of its effects until the ban actually takes effect. But it’s safe to say it disadvantages challengers and political newcomers. Digital ads are much cheaper than television ads, drawing in a wider scope of candidates, especially for down-ballot races. Though much of the public debate about digital ads focuses on hyped-up fears of nefarious persuasion, many more digital ads are used as an organizational tool. Challenger campaigns use low-cost digital ads to build lists of supporters, solicit donations and mobilize volunteers. Digital ads also allow political newcomers to introduce themselves – a tactic that often only breaks through with paid promotion.

And although Twitter brings in far less revenue in political ads than Facebook, Twitter offers political newcomers the ability to communicate to potential supporters as well as journalists and political elites. From Twitter, journalists infer what is newsworthy and tweets that get high engagement on the platform can lead to news coverage. Twitter’s ban on political ads will make it harder for challengers and newcomers to break into the news cycle.

But the ban does more than just hurt political newcomers. Overall, it’s too over-reaching and it’s a slippery slope in terms of regulating online speech. It was a positive, and I think necessary, move to remove political “issues” from the ban because it would have been nearly impossible to make a clear line in the sand regarding what qualifies as a political issue and what is non-political. But given that the ban will still apply to political content, Twitter still faces a challenge in terms of differentiating political content from non-political content, even excepting for issues. I think the company will ultimately realize it’s too big a task and will end up walking the ban back even further, but we’ll have to wait and see how it plays out.

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