In response to several US Senators announcing potential legislation to regulate advertising on Twitter, the tech company revealed that they have a new plan to greatly increase transparency for all advertisements on their platform, not just political ads.
In a post on the Twitter product blog, Bruce Falck, General Manager of Revenue, Product, and Engineering, described their new "transparency center" feature as "industry-leading," setting it apart from Facebook's recent efforts to combat the exploitation of its platform through advertising.
Twitter's center is a one-stop-shop where you can find all ads running on Twitter, how long they've been running, and the creative bits associated with each of those campaigns. Additionally, you can also find ads that are specifically targeted to you (along with information about why they're targeted to you), as well as what kinds of ads you may potentially see on the site. The same goes for political and "electioneering" ads, only in those cases, you can also see how much an advertiser's spent on their ad campaign, their targeting demographics, and historical data about all "electioneering" ads taken out by the advertiser. Most importantly, you'll be able to find "transparency about the identity of the organization funding the campaign," as they describe it in their post. Ideally, you'll know who exactly paid for the ad you're seeing, as well as how much they spent to get it there to you.
When it comes to political ads, Twitter's looking to set some very clear delineation between regular accounts' tweets and those coming from what they call political accounts. They're doing so by tagging political accounts with a special symbol next to their account name, similar to how they tag "verified" user accounts with a blue checkmark. Then, any ads taken out by those accounts would be labelled with a similar marking, a bit like how they differentiate between a promoted ad and a regular tweet.
One worrying issue, though, is they're going to require these political accounts to self-identify themselves to Twitter, echoing the process it takes to get "verified." At that point it would be up to Twitter to identify who "qualifies" as a verified political account or not, and while that would greatly increase their control (as well as their potential liability), it makes Twitter a bit of a gatekeeper, as the onus would fall on them to decide who gets to do what. As they don't list the criteria they look for in verifying an account with a blue checkmark, it's probably safe to say they won't share what they look for in labelling an account as a political one. It's an interesting tradeoff, it seems, as increased transparency for the end user could result in greater obfuscation for the advertiser.
According to Wired's report on the matter, Twitter had already implemented something similar on political ads back in 2011. Adam Sharp, Twitter's then-Head of Government, News, and Elections, said that users were able to look up information on who posted the ad. But later, after Facebook applied for an exemption from having to implement such disclaimers, deadlocking the Federal Election Commission, the practice fell away. Sharp said, "That lack of resolution made lack of transparency the industry standard."
On top of those changes regarding political and electioneering ads, they writes that they'll also update their policies to "include stricter requirements on who can serve these ads and limit targeting options" and "introduce stronger penalties for advertisers who violate policies." As for "issue-based ads," Twitter says that there are no clearly-defined guidelines or practices regarding how to handle such ads yet, but they're keeping an eye out anyway.
Twitter's timing of these policies is likely no mistake, either: AdWeek points out that top executives at Twitter -- along with executives at Google and Facebook -- are expected to testify before Congress about how their platform may have been exploited by Russian agents and interests during the 2016 presidential election. Twitter has already shared some of their findings, which Senator Warner said he was "deeply disappointed" in because of how derivative they were of research done by other tech companies involved.
Previously, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner introduced the "Honest Ads Act," which they said would fully regulate ads on the internet in the same way that ads are regulated on television and radio, requiring disclaimers and full identification at the end of each ad. Bloomberg Tech reports that Senator Warner has already commented on Twitter's new "transparency center," calling it "a good first step, particularly public disclosure of ads info." He continued: "Online political ads need more transparency & disclosure."