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There’s a big problem with Twitter’s bold ban of political ads

What makes a tweet political? We’ll find out when Twitter starts implementing its new rules in late November.

There’s a big problem with Twitter’s bold ban of political ads
[Photos: Matt Crossick/PA Images via Getty Images; Marco Krenn/Unsplash]

In a surprise move, Twitter says it will stop running political ads. But implementing the new policy could involve some messy trade-offs and unintended consequences.

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Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey explained in a Twitter thread on Wednesday that the company believes people on the platform should see political tweets only when they actively choose to.

“A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet,” he tweeted. “Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money.”

Dorsey is likely right that hypertargeting people with political messages using their own personal information isn’t entirely democratic. But filtering out political speech on a massive social media platform won’t be easy. First Twitter has to answer the practical question of what constitutes a political message.

Is it political?

Political ads aren’t all about political candidates, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pointed out in his October 17 “free speech” speech at Georgetown. “There are many more ads about issues than there are directly about elections,” he said. “Would we ban all ads about healthcare or immigration or women’s empowerment?” Facebook has resolutely chosen to keep running political ads, even if they contain misinformation.

“If we banned candidates’ ads but not these, would that really make sense to give everyone else a voice in political debates except the candidates themselves?” Zuckerberg asked.

So how do you differentiate issue ads from candidate ads at a huge scale? Twitter is sidestepping that problem by banning both kinds of ads.

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Twitter defines “issue ads” as ads that “refer to an election or a candidate,” or that “advocate for legislative issues of national importance.” Presumably it will use that definition to establish the line between political ads and nonpolitical ones.

But some ads may defy those definitions. How will Twitter handle borderline cases like tweets from organizations like the Sierra Club that are barely political, or tweets that make only passing or subtle reference to some political issue?

Would these ads be banned?

The Trump campaign promotes tweets on Twitter, so naturally they weren’t happy to hear the news. Brad Parascale, Trump’s campaign manager and digital guru, responded with all the hyperbole and victimhood you’d expect, but buried in his statement was a good question:

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“Will Twitter also be stopping ads from biased liberal media outlets who will now run unchecked as they buy obvious political content meant to attack Republicans?”

News organizations really do promote stories with a clear political bent, from MSNBC and Slate on the left to Breitbart and Fox News on the right. Will Twitter let those stories be featured in promoted tweets?

Unintended consequences

Political campaigns at all levels use Twitter to help get their message out and to build donor lists. Lesser-known candidates might use sponsored tweets to introduce more people to their brand. Those campaigns will loose that megaphone, and will have to rely on organic posts for their reach. For the smaller campaigns, that could be tough sledding.

In their quest for attention, there’s a danger that candidates or causes might resort to sensational or negative messaging in an effort to get more likes and shares on Twitter. There’s evidence that this can work.

Twitter’s decision may benefit larger campaigns that can afford to buy ads on more expensive platforms, like TV and radio.

Much of the conversation after the Twitter announcement was whether or not Facebook might ban political ads next. But it’s risky to assume that the Twitter ban would have similar effects at Facebook. Twitter and Facebook are very different places with very different crowds, and they’re used by political campaigns for very different things. Facebook is considered a more direct channel to voters and would-be supporters. Twitter is seen as a hub for the literati.

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Campaign data scientists and digital people have told me that Twitter is better for targeting thought leaders and influencers than large segments of potential supporters.

“We use Twitter mainly to reach journalists,” one GOP data science consultant tells me. “If we feel like the media narrative starts getting carried away, we will just put it on Facebook, where we can reach them directly.”

That’s why you see campaigns spending far less at Twitter than at Facebook. Twitter CFO Ned Segal said his company took in less than $3 million in political ad revenue during the entire 2018 cycle. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign had spent more than $20 million this year on Facebook ads through the end of September.

Giving up political and issue ads is a very different calculus for Twitter than it is for Facebook. Zuckerberg said on the company’s earnings call today that: “We estimate that these ads from politicians will be less than 0.5% of our revenue next year.” The operative words there are “from politicians.” Zuckerberg said that the vast majority of political ads on Facebook are “issue ads,” which aren’t typically from politician campaigns. When you add in the issue add revenue, Facebook’s political ad revenue might be significant.

At the very least, the political ads ban is a savvy move for Twitter. The company may be  headed for some rough days figuring out how to implement the policy fairly, but that should be expected. This is a major policy decision on a major platform that will affect a lot of people, so there will be some negatives in the near term. In the long term, Twitter’s move will be judged on whether it caused more good than harm.

I think it’s for the best, mainly because we don’t fully understand the implications of sophisticated micro-targeting of political messages on social media. We don’t know for sure that it’s not subverting the democratic process.

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So while Mark Zuckerberg rather high-handedly says it’s best to default to free speech, Dorsey wisely points out that this debate isn’t about free speech. It’s about buying influence on social media, and whether that hurts democracy.

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