Twitter’s Ban on Political Ads Will Hurt Activists, Labor Groups, and Organizers

The company’s feel-good decision is already a mess

Photo: Chesnot/Getty

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced on Wednesday that the company will ban political advertising, a move that earned the company a rare wave of positive press.

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan called it “heartening.” New York Times op-ed columnist Kara Swisher suggested it might be “the best subtweet ever,” referring to the implicit jab at rival Facebook. The move contrasts with Facebook’s recent decision not only to continue running political ads, but exempt them from its normal fact-checking processes — a policy that has allowed Donald Trump to promote false claims on the social network and encouraged others to do the same.

There’s something to be said for a tech platform taking its responsibilities to the democratic process seriously. But banning political ads is not as straightforward, nor as obviously correct, as those cheering Dorsey’s announcement seem to think.

The problem is twofold. First, defining which ads count as “political” gets tricky in a hurry. Second, prioritizing commercial speech over political speech is itself a political stance, and not necessarily one that we should want our online communication platforms to take.

Twitter’s policy will prohibit both campaign ads, which promote a candidate or ballot measure, and issue ads, which advocate for what Twitter calls “legislative issues of national importance.” When I asked Twitter what constitutes an issue ad, the company said it’s still working out the details ahead of the policy’s implementation on November 15. Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s policy and legal lead, offered five examples of general categories of political issues that will likely be encompassed by the ban: climate change, health care, immigration, national security, and taxes. You don’t have to look past the first of those examples to start to see the problem.

Is climate change really a political issue? Some might try to argue that it shouldn’t be: It’s an issue of critical importance to the future of all humanity, provided you accept the scientific consensus. But in the United States, at least, it is absolutely a political issue, sparking heated partisan debates as to both the validity of the science and the proper policy response. And so Twitter’s policy will make it harder for environmental advocacy groups to reach potential supporters, shame polluters, and make the case for action to keep the earth habitable.

But what about the for-profit energy companies whose emissions are driving climate change? Are all of their ads political, or only the ones that specifically reference climate change? Will oil companies be barred from advertising on Twitter? What about ads selling SUVs, encouraging people to eat beef, or buy single-family homes in sprawling suburban neighborhoods? By conventional definitions, none of those are political ads, and it seems likely that most will continue to be allowed under Twitter’s new policy. In short, a ban on political ads implies that advertisers can use Twitter to promote fossil fuel and the consumption of fossil fuel-based products, but not to advocate against them. These nit-picky details are already causing the company headaches as it ponders exemptions for news outlets, get out the vote efforts, and other subcategories of political messaging.

This perverse dynamic isn’t limited to climate change. Presumably, tech companies will still be able to run ads touting their commitment to user privacy, but watchdog groups will be barred from running ads suggesting that we need better privacy regulations. Big corporations will be able to boast about how they treat workers, but unions won’t be able to push for prevailing wage laws or workplace safety laws.

Prioritizing commercial speech over political speech is itself a political stance, and not necessarily one that we should want our online platforms to take.

In a sense, every ad for a brand or product is an advertisement for capitalism and consumerism, and Twitter is cool with that. But try to advertise for socialism, civil rights, or public goods and see how quickly you run afoul of the company’s ban.

This may all sound like a hypothetical problem — the question of what is a political issue ad and how should they be regulated long predates Facebook and Twitter. But Twitter’s new ban will have a very real impact. Under the advertising transparency rules that Twitter introduced in 2017, campaign and issue advertisers on the platform are already technically required to register as such. You can see the company’s list of certified issue advertisers here. An outright ban on these advertisers means that these groups will likely try to get off this list. Organizations that aren’t on this list yet will likely come under more scrutiny. So, who will feel the brunt of this new ban?

By Twitter’s definition, this ad from Beyond Carbon promoting an op-ed in the Hill that calls for a transition to clean energy is a political ad and would likely be banned from here on out. So would this one honoring the contributions of immigrants, by a group affiliated with FWD.us. And this one from a union, promoting an op-ed by a formerly homeless union member about the need for affordable housing and a prevailing wage. And this one by TBS for a Samantha Bee episode roasting President Trump.

This ad promoting an op-ed about climate politics is labeled as a political issue ad in Twitter’s system. Under Twitter’s new policy, it would likely be prohibited.

To be fair, so would this ad from the American Petroleum Institute advocating for a new pipeline. But scroll through Twitter’s certified issue advertiser list and you’ll find that it skews heavily toward nonprofits working in the public interest, including environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and EDF Action. As others have noted, social media platforms such as Twitter offer a relatively low-cost way to target people with issue ads, for groups that can’t afford to purchase gauzy TV commercials. So the ban figures to impact organizations with small ad budgets more than those with the deepest pockets.

And of course, the ban does nothing to address the many ways that political actors can influence people on Twitter beyond buying ads. Dorsey is right that the presence of misinformation, bots, and manipulation on its platform shouldn’t prevent the company from taking action on the advertising front. But it does give an advantage to incumbents with large followings over upstarts trying to build them. And it means that if you want to spend money to further a political cause on Twitter, you can now only do so through shady means, not transparent ones.

Twitter is not the first to take this stand. As the Verge’s Casey Newton points out, Twitter follows Pinterest and TikTok in prohibiting political ads. But neither of those plays a central role in political discourse the way Twitter does.

This is not to defend Facebook’s policy of allowing all political ads and declining to fact-check them. That telegraphs a hands-off attitude that welcomes bad actors and suggests a disregard for the dynamics of a platform that has proven especially conducive to spreading fear and lies.

It is telling, however, that Twitter’s response was not to say that it will fact-check political ads, or exercise some basic standards and judgment, but to banish them altogether. Big tech platforms have taken over many of the roles of the traditional media in a democratic society, and sucked up most of the profits. But they remain loath, for understandable reasons, to take on the laborious editorial responsibilities of sifting truth from falsehood, and legitimate arguments from bigotry or propaganda. It’s not what they were built for, and it’s not clear to what extent we’d be better or worse off if they attempted it at the massive scale on which they operate.

So yes, Facebook’s approach to political ads is problematic. But so is Twitter’s. And so will the policies of any platform that becomes a crucial conduit for news and political opinion, yet operates on a scale that makes responsible editorial oversight extremely difficult.

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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