Does Twitter’s political ad ban go too far?

Twitter received praise for banning political advertising last year. But have its policies gone too far by sweeping in “cause-based” campaigns as well? 

Towards the end of 2019, Twitter tweaked the nose of Facebook by declaring that it would ban all political advertising on its platform. 

The announcement came just days after Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg had effectively ruled out doing anything about the problem, which has proven at once so lucrative and such a PR headache for the social networking giant. 

Coincidence?

Hardly. 

The questions of political advertising on social media, filter bubbles, fake news, micro-targeting and explicit interference in democratic processes are all bearing down on Facebook like no other company. 

Twitter is nowhere near as influential as Facebook in shaping people’s political views, and political advertising is hardly a big earner for it. 

CFO Ned Segal acknowledged that political ads brought in less than $3 million for Twitter during the 2018 US midterm elections. 

The ban is an easy stance for Twitter to take, which costs it very little and which highlights how compromised its rival is. 

Last December, Zuckerberg invited scorn and ridicule when he refused to take action against overtly and demonstrably false statements in political advertising, claiming it would be “censorship”. 

But has Twitter gone too far in behaving as though there is a simple solution to the challenges social media pose to representative democracy?

Arguably, they have thrown the baby out with the bath water with the Cause-Based Advertising Policy, which is closely linked to and cross-references the Political Content Policy

The former states:

Advertising should not be used to drive political, judicial, legislative, or regulatory outcomes; however, cause-based advertising can facilitate public conversation around important topics.

The tension between these two sentences is immediately apparent. Most “public conversation around important topics” is aimed at driving outcomes of the sorts listed. 

The details of the policy prohibit:

  • Cause-based advertising by “uncertified” accounts
  • Geo-targeting of ads at low levels
  • Keyword targeting around “political” terms (eg “liberal”)
  • Adverts that are “run on behalf of or specifically reference people or entities” prohibited under the Political Content Policy
  • Adverts that link to landing pages that are “run on behalf of or specifically reference people or entities” so prohibited 

Who are these “people or entities”?

Twitter says:

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.

It’s hard to see how this would not apply to almost all civil society campaigning in the majority of Western democracies. To raise issues is to talk about outcomes and methods of achieving them. 

Trade associations, unions, pressure groups and social movements have all found their capacity to get their messages heard diminished by Twitter’s action. 

Of course, it’s right to interpret “political” broadly. “Issue ads” promoted by organisations that are not overtly political (or party political) feature prominently in the election interference narratives. Setting up exempt front bodies to say the things you can’t is one of the oldest tricks in the book. 

But it’s not just the bad actors, the sock puppets and the provocateurs Twitter is targeting. 

And when Twitter is so reluctant to act on the very real problems of fakery, trolling and bullying in its organic content, the piety around advertising is a little harder to swallow.