The ban on political advertising

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, recently announced that the site will implement a worldwide ban on paid-for political adverts due to a belief that “political message reach should be earned, not bought”. Twitter’s new ad policy is to be implemented globally from 22 November 2019 and will apply to promotion of ‘political content’ and ‘political issues’ advertising.

Dorsey explained in a series of tweets that “while internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics,” as political advertisement carries the risk that it “can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions”. Dorsey also highlighted the growing concern in recent years of misleading information, fake news and deep fakes, which Twitter has been particularly vulnerable to, and he argued that these threats will be combated by banning all political advertising.

The policy change comes at a well-timed period of discourse in the global political landscape, given the UK general election campaigns are well underway and the 2020 US presidential election is on the horizon.

What does the new policy say?

Under the new ad policy, Twitter prohibits the promotion of ‘political content,’ defined 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 any reference to political content, including appeals for votes, solicitations of financial support, and advocacy for or against any type of political content will be prohibited. The ban also includes ads from political parties, candidates, elected or appointed government officials, political action committees (PACs) and advocacy not-for-profits known as 501(c)(4)s.

Twitter will however exempt certain news publishers from referencing political content provided they do not advocate for or against political content and have met certain criteria such as completing Twitter’s certification process. These publishers will be allowed to advertise fact-based reporting, but won’t for example be able to post a political endorsement as an ad.

The new policy also carves out “cause based” ads from the blanket ban that address “political issues” such as the environment, economic growth or social equity, as long as they do not directly advocate for or against legislative, electoral, regulatory or judicial change. These types of ads will still be subject to Twitter’s new restrictions on micro-targeting, and can only be aimed at broad geographies or non-political keywords or interests.

Advertisers will not be able to target their ads toward other, more personal characteristics, such as race, gender or political affiliation and will only be able to run cause-based ads if they are related to an organization’s values or principles, as long as the “primary goal” of the ad is not to influence political, judicial, legislative or regulatory outcomes. These ads may not be run on behalf of or specifically reference people or entities who are prohibited from advertising under the policy and advertisers wishing to run such ads will still also need to certified by Twitter.

How will the policy be implemented?

It is clear that adverts by election candidates promoting their political campaigns will be banned under the new policy, but what constitutes fact-based reporting rather than advocacy is a fine line. Furthermore, what falls under the scope of “cause based” ads addressing political issues remains unclear. Twitter has identified political issues such as “abortion, healthcare, guns, climate change, immigration, [and] taxes” as relevant, but it remains to be seen how Twitter will enforce this policy. Many commentators have argued this puts Twitter in the privileged position of arbitrator, being able to rule on what is and what is not a “political issue,” which has understandably sparked much debate around censorship and freedom of speech. Akin to the criticism of the Online Harms White Paper, defining something so inherently subjective is a difficult game to play. Whether this role is even appropriate for a social media giant is another question entirely.

What impact will this have?

Some commentators see Twitter’s policy change as a positive response to the issues highlighted by the Online Harms White Paper (amongst many other sources) and shows a social media giant taking more responsibility for the content on their platforms, in part with a view to curbing political disinformation. Others have branded it a PR stunt, claiming its practical impact will be minimal given the relatively low level of political advertising on the site.

Donald Trump’s campaign team claimed the ban was a “very dumb decision for their stockholders” as the Company would lose “hundreds of millions of dollars of potential revenue,” although commentators have pointed that out in reality, the financial impact of the policy is unlikely to be significant. The total spend on Twitter-based political ads by all UK political parties in the 2017 election was only £56,504 and across the pond, political advertisement from US campaigns accounted roughly 0.1% of Twitter’s global revenue.

Twitter’s policy change has also prompted questions on whether other social media platforms will follow suit. In response to Twitter’s move, Facebook (which currently allows paid-for political ads) stated in clear terms that it would not be changing its company’s policy. It remains to be seen whether other industry giants, such as Google and YouTube, will be jumping on the bandwagon or what impact, if any, Twitter’s new policy will have, but what it has done is diverted more attention to the role digital platforms play in political advertising which has become increasingly scrutinised as we delve further into the digital era.

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