Twitter Bans Political Ads: But What Really Is Political?

Credit: The Hill

News Analysis by JC Rivera and Svitlana Leven

Twitter has banned political ads on its social media platform, but the criteria of what constitutes  “political” remains unclear. The New York Times’s story, “What Ads Are Political? Twitter Struggles With a Definition” by Kate Conger, describes how advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations, from Planned Parenthood to the Environmental Defense Fund and the Alzheimer’s Association, fear that this decision may prevent their ad campaigns from running on Twitter. The major confusion is how Twitter will ultimately define what is political and how it will implement the ban. 

Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, who announced the policy in a series of tweets, said he believes that the social network’s credibility is at stake. Dorsey argues that when it comes to political messages, public reach should be “earned not bought.”  That means ads that discuss elections, candidates, political parties and other overtly political content will be prohibited with a few exceptions such as messages promoting voter registration. Ads that refer to social causes or issues that are placed by advocacy organizations will still be allowed but will face restrictions. The new limitations mean that these groups will no longer be able to micro-target who sees their ads by zip code, city or political leanings. Now they can only specify the state.  

Unlike Twitter, Facebook allows all political advertising. Its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, believes that even ads containing lies and disinformation are newsworthy and constitute free speech. This has led to charges by Elizabeth Warren and others that Facebook is running a “disinformation-for-profit machine.”

Takeaway: Twitter’s new policy has been both lauded as visionary and criticized as shortsighted. For advocacy groups who need public support for their causes, it means their online campaigns will be much less effective. For many of these nonprofit organizations, Twitter used to be a powerful and affordable tool to raise awareness for their programs and policies through issue-based ads. We argue that while Twitter’s policy changes may be well intentioned, they are overly broad and underestimate the public’s ability to critically evaluate digital advocacy messages.