Twitter has released new details about how it plans to enforce a ban on political advertising. The ban, which comes into effect next week, represents one of the most drastic actions yet by a major platform to gain control over the way candidates and groups can use social media to influence the public.
Twitter outlined the new policies that will prevent campaigns from promoting candidates, and political groups from advocating for legislation. “Political reach should be earned and not bought,” said Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s legal, policy and trust and safety lead, during a call with reporters on Friday.
The move could have some impact on brand advertisers who veer into political messaging in their ads, such as companies promoting causes or touching on topics like climate change. However, so long as the ads don’t push a candidate or lobby for a specific bill, they should pass muster.
“We define political content as content that references a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive or judicial outcome,” Twitter said in its newly detailed policy.
Twitter became the first among its U.S. social media peers—including Facebook and Google—to limit political advertising, when CEO Jack Dorsey announced the plans last month. Dorsey’s approach was seen as a bold move that would put pressure on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to follow suit and limit how politicians and groups advertise.
The platforms have faced withering attacks from political voices concerned about misleading "attack" ads getting amplified on Facebook and Twitter. With every questionable ad, new critics emerge, calling for greater regulation and the removal of ads that are seen as spreading lies. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren, in particular, has called for Facebook to fact-check political ads. While Presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris has urged Twitter to delete President Donald Trump’s account, not just over worrying ads but also inflammatory speech that she said she was concerned could stir violence.
The digital platforms have been at the heart of U.S. political turmoil since at least the 2016 presidential election, before which little attention was paid to who was running social media accounts and how malign actors were able to sow seeds of disinformation.
Since then, Facebook, Google and Twitter have updated policies about how political ads are bought. Campaigns and groups have to prove their identities and political ads are available for the public to see in open archives.
The changes have affected major brands and ad agencies who have sometimes been tagged as political advertisers when their messages touch on political issues. There have been gray areas, too, such as where publishers like The New York Times and The Washington Post sponsor news articles that pertain to politics. Twitter and Facebook came up with mechanisms that treat publishers differently than political advertisers.
Twitter’s new outright ban on political ads could lead to some confusion as it becomes implemented and groups try to find the boundaries of what is, and isn't, allowed. “While it’s still a big change for Twitter to ban political ads, and that’s what’s certainly getting most of the spotlight,” says Lauren Amaio Soule, director of communications at Global Strategy Group, a political consulting firm, “it’s important to pay attention to the issue-advocacy side of the equation. It’s a less-definitive area, and there are still a lot of unknowns.”
There are concerns that some groups with intentions to sway political opinion and public outcomes could game the system. Media entities with non-defined political agendas might try to slip through the media exemption, which would allow them to purchase ads and engage in political advocacy.
Gadde acknowledged there will be a period of trial and error while Twitter comes up with the best formula for identifying what falls under its new guidelines. “We’re going to make some mistake and we’re going to have to learn,” Gadde said.
Facebook has also debated internally whether it should ban political ads rather than deal with the problems associated with them. The social network is under constant scrutiny, criticized for allowing certain ads and criticized again for blocking others. Zuckerberg has said the decision to allow political ads is not financially motivated, that it’s a policy that gives a platform to groups and candidates that would not have a voice otherwise.
“It’s imperfect as a solution but at least Jack [Dorsey] is trying to address some of the underlying concerns,” says Noah Mallin, content, sponsorships and experience practice lead for Wavemaker North America. “There’s always a downside. In this case it may be harder for less-well-known politicians or issues to make their way to the forefront of conversation through ads, which has the effect of giving a structural advantage to higher-name-recognition candidates and conventional wisdom on issues.”