Here’s Exactly How Twitter’s Political Ad Policy Will Work

It’s more complicated than we thought. And that could be a problem.

Photo by Tayler Smith. Prop Styling by Caroline Dorn

When Twitter announced last month that it was planning to ban political advertising, many cheered. Here, it seemed, was a decisive action by a social media platform that put the public interest ahead of its own profit motive. The stand Twitter was taking, as outlined in a tweet thread by CEO Jack Dorsey, was the opposite of Facebook’s widely ridiculed policy of not only allowing political advertising, but declining to fact-check it, giving political actors free reign to spread targeted misinformation.

Then came the backlash. Twitter initially indicated that its policy would ban not only campaign ads, but issue ads, which it defined as advocacy pertaining to issues of legislative importance. Some critics argued that Twitter’s policy would benefit incumbents with large followings over political outsiders. Others pointed out that it would seem to allow corporations to promote their own interests, even if those had political ramifications, but prohibit nonprofits and advocacy groups from opposing them. (I was among those critics.) In particular, Twitter’s initial implication that the policy might prohibit ads about climate change but allow ads from oil companies struck many on the left, including Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, as deeply misguided.

Dorsey replied that those objections were premature, since Twitter had yet to announce the policy’s specifics. But people at the company were readily engaging with critics: The concern about climate change partially stemmed from a tweet by Twitter executive Vijaya Gadde replying to a question I had asked about how the company would decide what constitutes an issue ad.

On Friday, Twitter finally cleared things up by announcing its full policy information. It allows for considerably more nuance than the blanket ban many had anticipated. What remains to be seen now is if Twitter is actually equipped to consistently and fairly enforce it.

The overall intent of the policy, which Twitter explained to OneZero and other outlets in a conference call shortly before announcing it Friday, is still to prohibit the promotion of political content on Twitter, and it will apply worldwide. But there are new exceptions that will require a lot of subjective judgments by Twitter officials.

Here’s how the company described what’s prohibited:

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.

Ads that contain references to political content, including appeals for votes, solicitations of financial support, and advocacy for or against any of the above-listed types of political content, are prohibited under this policy.

We also do not allow ads of any type by candidates, political parties, or elected or appointed government officials.

In addition, in the United States specifically, 501(c)(4) nonprofits, PACs, and SuperPACs will also be prohibited from advertising on Twitter. That encompasses advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association.

That all seems straightforward enough, though there will no doubt be edge cases, such as former politicians, or potential candidates who have not yet declared their candidacy.

The policy gets particularly complicated when it comes to a separate category of ads that Twitter is now calling “cause-based advertising.” That’s advertising that, in Twitter’s words, aims to “educate, raise awareness, and/or call for people to take action in connection with civic engagement, economic growth, environmental stewardship, or social equity causes.”

Such cause-based advertising will be allowed under Twitter’s new policy, provided it’s not done by or on behalf of candidates or political groups. This category of ads also cannot reference candidates or political groups. Such ads will be limited in their targeting options, with only loose geographic targeting, keyword, and interest-based targeting allowed. That means cause-based ads can’t be “microtargeted” based on people’s demographics, zip code, or other fine-grained criteria. And anyone who wants to place a cause-based ad will have to go through Twitter’s advertiser certification process.

Twitter will now be in the business of divining the primary goal of every advertiser who places an ad that might have political ramifications.

For-profit corporations will be allowed to place cause-based ads as long as those ads reflect their “publicly stated values” and do not have “the primary goal of driving political, judicial, legislative, or regulatory outcomes.”

There is also an exemption for news organizations, which can promote stories about political issues as long as they’re factual news reports and not opinion pieces or endorsements. So the New York Times could promote a news story that exposes a politician’s corruption, but not an op-ed calling the politician corrupt.

Whew.

What it all means is that Twitter will now be in the business of divining the primary goal of every advertiser who places an ad that might have political ramifications, and deciding which ones will be allowed and which won’t. If that sounds hard to do in the United States, where Twitter is headquartered, imagine the difficulty in applying it to every country in which Twitter operates.

In the call with reporters Friday, Gadde and Del Harvey, Twitter’s vice president of trust and safety, acknowledged this won’t be easy.

“While we believe this is the right first step,” Gadde said, “this is entirely new terrain. We’re going to have to build out a lot more detail, especially globally.” She said the company would try to be transparent about its decisions and rationale. “We’re also prepared that we’re going to make some mistakes, and we’re going to have to learn and improve this policy over time.”

It’s good that Twitter recognizes that. And the new policy seems more carefully considered than some critics had feared. It no longer appears to entirely rule out ads that call attention to societal problems or corporate malfeasance, or promote abstract values with political implications.

In practice, however, it is likely to curtail even the type of cause-based advertising that it specifically allows, because many of the advertisers who tend to place such ads are 501(c)(4) nonprofits, which will be banned from advertising at all.

And while it’s admirable in some ways that Twitter is willing to take the risk of making subjective judgments as to which ads are cause-based and which are overtly political, the company has a poor track record of making subjective decisions about speech on its platform. Expect a string of controversies as it grapples with whether, say, Fox News can promote a controversial “news” story that paints a prominent liberal in a negative light, or Amazon can tout its strong privacy protections for users at a time when various states are eyeing privacy regulations.

Finally, on a basic level, Twitter is still prioritizing commercial speech over political speech. That is not an indefensible stand, but it’s not obviously the correct one, either. Internet platforms and political ads are an explosive mix, and it’s good that Twitter and its rivals are finally taking the implications seriously. It’s just too bad they didn’t start long before now.

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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