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

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

Will Oremus
OneZero
Published in
6 min readOct 31, 2019

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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.

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