Making Sense Of Twitter’s Political Ad Ban

On Wednesday, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, made a bold proclamation on behalf of this company.  Dorsey’s announcement was that, in response to the difficulties regulating the veracity of online advertising, the company starting on November 22, 2019, would ban all political ads.  Dorsey went on to say that “paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people…And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle.

The news drew immediate reaction from both sides of the aisle.  Brad Parscale, President Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, tweeted that the decision was “a very dumb decision” for Twitter’s shareholders and that the decision was a partisan act intended to silence conservatives. Meanwhile, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke in favor of the move, tweeting out that “if a company cannot or does not wish to run basic fact-checking on paid political advertising, then they should not run paid political ads at all.” 

We asked a few experts what they made of the move, and here are their responses:

Jennifer M. Grygiel, Assistant Professor of Communications (Social Media) & Magazine, News and Digital Journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications: “Unfortunately, Twitter has a history of global policy changes that end up not being that global when it comes to the United States, so it’s unclear if this will be a good thing domestically. For example, Twitter’s global state media policy exempted US state media per BuzzFeed News, but media produced by governments is inherently political. I hope the latest announcement regarding political ads applies to US state media and that Voice of America, and other USAGM networks funded by the US government, will also be added to Twitter’s state media policy.”

Daniel Kreiss, Associate Professor in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: “ I don’t think it is a good thing. To me it is an extreme approach that overlooks the attention and mobilizational benefits to ads and the ways that paid advertising is important to challengers. It empowers incumbents and media appointed political elites.

To me the middle ground is to do away with data/targeting in the political space. Introduce more friction into the system that candidates have fewer incentives to run extremist content.

Now that we have two extreme positions (Facebook’s everything goes and Twitter’s nothing goes), there is a lot of space for middle ground of making ads less targeted so more friction is built into the system.”

Renée DiResta, Research Manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory:   “This is a very challenging issue, and there is no solution that will make everyone happy. On the one hand, emerging candidates and small advocacy groups leverage low-cost social ads to grow their movements, and the low cost of social ads allows them to gain followings without big donors. They will be the ones most impacted by this policy.

On the other hand is the Facebook approach of allowing candidates to spread false and misleading information, aided by precision targeting, with only outside journalists/researchers in the position of assessing truthfulness (well after the ad has gone out to those most likely to be receptive to the message)…very few people seem happy with that policy.

I do believe that ads on social platforms are distinctly different from mass-broadcast ads, primarily because of the targeting, but also due to the virality and velocity. I think Jack also had a much more nuanced and honest assessment of his platform’s ability to manage the risk of viral misinformation, and the distinction around . I would prefer to see a more tailored solution around targeting, or factchecking, but think Twitter’s position here is preferable to Facebook’s. It is going to be interesting to watch Twitter navigate the pitfalls of the fuzzy line around what constitutes an “issue” – is Nike’s Kaepernick ad a product ad, or an issue ad? – as Facebook is navigating what constitutes a political candidate.”

Bryan Jones, Tech Entrepreneur and Managing Director of Strive and Solve Ventures: “I think that it’s a shrewd first step in what will likely be a long process to address the intersection of politics and free speech. Twitter makes such a small percentage of revenue from political ads, it really doesn’t materially impact their financials. Yet, it does bring additional exposure to tech companies that still run any political ads (ie, Facebook). Unfortunately, Twitter’s solution is probably not the right approach for the mid-to-long term given two issues: 1) digital reach is the only way that many issues and candidates can connect with a significant portion of the population and 2) the difficulty in drawing the line on what is political or issue-driven vs not will become very subjective. Hopefully, however, what this does it move the Overton window so that eventually all ads, not just political ads, are bought without the ability to use individual level targeting using demographic or sociographic data. Such a change would ensure that daylight is able to find and expose those ads which were designed to deliver misinformation, disinformation or otherwise vitriolic content.”