Twitter is killing "dark" political ads with new transparency rules

October 24, 2017, 5:34pm

Twitter, under substantial pressure from Washington before its scheduled testimony on Capitol Hill next week, has announced that it will create a “Transparency Center” to pull the curtain back on all the ads served on Twitter.

This means, per a Tuesday blog post from engineering exec Bruce Falck, that people will soon be able to see what ads are running on Twitter, how long they have been running, the photos and videos that run with the ads, and information about why specific ads are targeted to specific users. In essence, this means the death of the “dark post” Twitter ad campaigns, which allowed buyers to purchase that were only viewable to the targeted audience.

There will also be special new policies for political advertising, Falck wrote, which include disclosure of spending on political ads and which terms — demographic, gender, etc. — are used to target them. These “electioneering” rules will also require political ad buyers to register as such, meet “stricter requirements” for running political ads, and face “stronger penalties” for rule breaking.

Twitter says that it is “committed” to the new rules around “issue-based ads” — meaning advocacy for political topics — which CEO Jack Dorsey also mentioned specifically in his Tuesday tweet on the announcement. “There is currently no clear industry definition for issue-based ads,” Falck noted.

By introducing the “stronger penalties for advertisers who violate policies,” Twitter is responding directly to the revelation that Russian agents purchased ads on top social networks in an attempt to influence the 2016 election. While the bulk of that activity appears to have been on Facebook — some $100,000 spent on around 3,000 ads — Twitter said in late September that it had found about 200 suspicious accounts pushing Russian propaganda.

Twitter’s new policies echo new reforms gaining traction in Silicon Valley and Capitol Hill — in particular, narrower ad transparency reforms on Facebook focused primarily on political ads, and the Honest Ads Act, backed by Democratic senators, that would align the rules for online political ad disclosure with those for radio, print, and broadcast television.

One of the Honest Ads Acts co-sponsors, Intel Committee Vice Chair and Virginia Senator Mark Warner, responded to Twitter’s Tuesday announcement favorably, calling it a “good first step” on Twitter.

Previously, Warner had called out Twitter for giving a “frankly inadequate” explanation for Russian activity on its ad platform during the 2016 election. Though he appears to have warmed up to the social network, he and his colleagues on the Intel Committee will still have the opportunity to grill Twitter’s acting general counsel Sean Edgett at the Nov. 1 hearing.