Twitter fleshed out its rather convoluted new policy for political ads on Friday, and it was met with immediate criticism, skepticism, and outright bafflement from both sides of the political spectrum.
Despite some early praise for the plan when CEO Jack Dorsey announced it late last month, including on this website, it turns out that it's the kind of undertaking that sounds a lot better in theory than it looks to be in practice. And while we should perhaps give Twitter the benefit of the doubt until actual enforcement of the policy begins on Nov. 22 — and given the fact that Twitter only clocked about $3 million in political ad revenue last year, compared to $3 billion in total revenue, maybe this will turn out to be a non-issue in the 2020 election anyway — the whole thing sounds like it's going to be a mess.
The issue largely has to do with tying the hands of candidates, PACs, and advocacy groups when it comes to pushing for legislative or judicial change, or specific election outcomes, while giving potentially free rein to corporations to push their own policy agendas. As frequent tech critic Elizabeth Warren was quick to tweet on Friday, "Twitter's new ad policy will allow fossil fuel companies to buy ads defending themselves and spreading misleading info — but won't allow organizations fighting the climate crisis to buy ads holding those companies accountable." It's possible that Warren and the person she was retweeting at the time, Emily Atkin, are misreading the rules, but the policy most certainly opens up a can of worms when it comes to defining what is and what isn't "cause-based advertising," and what non-profit groups and others will be able to in Twitter ads that candidates for office won't.
Twitter's new ad policy will allow fossil fuel companies to buy ads defending themselves and spreading misleading info—but won't allow organizations fighting the climate crisis to buy ads holding those companies accountable. We need accountability. https://t.co/B9RtX7hC5g— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) November 5, 2019
According to the draft guidelines Twitter released on Friday, companies and advocacy groups will be permitted to promote their causes — like the NRA can continue to promote gun culture — so long as they aren't advertising for specific judicial or legislative outcomes. But if the NRA's entire reason for being is defending a broad definition of the Second Amendment and lobbying Congress to tamp down gun control, how is their entire m.o. not considered political/judicial advocacy?
But groups like the Alzheimer's Association, Planned Parenthood, and the Environmental Defense Fund are all left wondering where the line will be drawn between when they're promoting their respective causes and when they're advocating for specific "outcomes." Also, they're now going to be restricted in how they target caused-based ads — they can only target users at the state or regional level, but not by zip code.
As Nick DeSarno, the director of digital and policy communications at the Public Affairs Council, tells the New York Times, "While Twitter’s potential new issues ads policy is more permissive than a total ban, it’s still going to be a challenge for groups who are trying to drive political or legislative change using the platform."
And challenges to how that enforcement unfolds could blow up into ugly, divisive battles between the left and the right. The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board, itself a conservative opinion body, wrote an editorial Sunday excoriating Twitter for what it calls "a jury-rigged ads policy that will damage confidence in his company and do nothing to improve political discourse."
And they continue:
The main effect of the policy is to give Twitter wide discretion to either approve or ban political content. This opens the door to bias. Even if the company tries to be neutral between right and left—and we’re skeptical, given Mr. Dorsey’s political opportunism in ordering the ad ban—it will be accused of bias when it blocks ads on grounds advertisers can’t understand.
Meanwhile, the company’s outright prohibition on candidate ads is a gift to established politicians or those who make outrageous claims. Mr. Dorsey intoned that political messages shouldn’t be “compromised by money” but ads are most valuable for speech that wouldn’t otherwise find an audience.
Conceived in sanctimony about Mr. Trump, Twitter’s policy could end up benefiting incumbents like him even as it pulls Twitter into a political thicket. Better if social-media companies recognize that, whatever their engineering expertise, it doesn’t extend to designing elaborate systems for controlling political speech.
Once hearing the policy as it stands, the reaction seemed pretty universal in its negativity and skepticism — causing some to realize that Mark Zuckerberg's stance about accepting all political ads without fact-checking is less of a greed-induced cop-out than it is an intellectual and political safe-harbor.
Writing for Vox, Emily Stewart calls the policy a "minefield" and asks, "How will [Twitter] identify those who inevitably try to game the system and set up a system for people to flag ads they believe break the rules? Will Twitter be transparent on how it makes subjective decisions?" Of course we don't know the answers to these questions just yet.
And as political communications researcher Shannon McGregor tells Stewart, "Twitter is still going to be trying to define what is political. Can it be contested? They’ve already proven themselves, just like the other platform companies, to be really bad at making those decisions."