Twitter’s announcement Wednesday that it will ban political ads should have a tiny impact on a world dominated by Facebook and Google. But it’s sparked an explosive reaction.
The decision has already drawn a flurry of subjective questions around political speech that suggest enforcement of the policy could be a nightmare. It points to the minefield facing the bigger players as a presidential campaign that could be won or lost on digital platforms heats up.
Since Twitter’s largely symbolic move, top Democratic leaders have already begun suggesting that Facebook should follow suit. But doing so could effectively boost well-heeled advertisers like President Donald Trump and ExxonMobil at the expense of grassroots groups and outsider politicians.
“First and foremost, that money that you’re banning isn’t leaving politics,” said Jessica Alter, co-founder of Tech for Campaigns, a nonprofit that advises Democrats in down-ballot races. “It’s either going to a less-effective medium — which means you need more money to get noticed — or it’s going to a darker place, which means we have less transparency.”
“It’s nice to say that political speech should be earned,” she added to VICE News. “But that’s not how the world works. People spend money on TV, they spend money on mail, and they spend money online.”
Twitter has previously said that it sold just $3 million in political ads during the 2018 midterms, an estimated 1/100 of Facebook’s haul. Yet Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey subtweeted his larger Silicon Valley counterpart’s decision to allow politicians to lie in ads when he shared the decision to go cold turkey on both political ads and the more ambiguous category of issue ads.
“This isn’t about free expression,” Dorsey said in a Twitter thread. “This is about paying for reach.”
The announcement has drawn praise from Democrats including Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, 2020 hopeful Pete Buttigieg, and former Joe Biden’s aides, who’ve spent the past month trashing Facebook for allowing the Trump campaign to run false ads about the former vice president and his son. “What say you, Facebook?” Hillary Clinton added on Twitter.
But for the foot soldiers who actually fight in the political infowar, it’s not so clear-cut. Marne Pike, CEO of progressive strategy firm Veracity Media, told VICE News that blanket bans of political ads would help established candidates and incumbents. Facebook and other platforms allow challengers to build name recognition and raise money without shelling out big bucks for untargeted TV spots.
Pike said that her firm, which advised Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) in her insurgent campaign last year, spent the majority of its communications budget on digital. “If we couldn't run ads on social platforms, that would have totally changed the race,” she added.
That sort of impact will likely be limited on Twitter, a much smaller platform chock-full of newshounds and other users who are politically active. But with the lines between journalism, advocacy, and advertising increasingly nonexistent, there’s a more fundamental question of how Twitter’s rule will play out.
“What I don’t understand is how they’ll define a political ad...What is an issue ad?” Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist, told VICE News. "It opens themselves up to so many more judgment calls that they probably don’t want to make. I’ll boil it down to this: This is not what people were asking for.”
In response to such questions, Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s head of legal, policy, and trust and safety teams, said the company is still ironing out the specifics of the ban before it goes into effect in mid-November. Twitter’s current definition of affected ads includes those that refer to an election or candidate, Gadde tweeted Wednesday, and “Ads that advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance (such as: climate change, healthcare, immigration, national security, taxes).”
“There's no doubt this decision will also have implications that we don't like,” Gadde added, “but on balance, we felt it was the right choice for us.”
If the month since Facebook’s announcement has been any indication, the result will likely be confusing and contradictory enforcement by Twitter. As one Democratic strategist put it, the company’s early definitions for political and issue ads have “massive, hilarious loopholes.”
Those could become even more apparent with politically active companies. “Nike made Colin Kaepernick the center of their ads,” said Tim Cameron, co-founder of FlexPoint Media and formerly the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s digital guru. “If Twitter decides to air those ads, what about a police union that wants to counter them? It’s such a gray line because, at the end of the day, everything is politics.”
There is another option that Twitter and Facebook have both avoided — and which could require regulation. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review this week, Alex Stamos, formerly the chief security officer at Facebook, argued that tech companies should limit how precisely advertisers can target small audiences. That also happens to be the core trick of their businesses.
“Politicians lie all the time,” he said. “What we want is for them to tell the same lies to everybody, instead of being able to hit 50 people at a time.”
Cover: In this Sept. 5, 2018, file photo Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)