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Twitter to ban all political ads amid 2020 election uproar

The social network’s decision sets it apart from Facebook, which has defended its controversial policies.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifies before a Senate committee last year. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Twitter on Wednesday said it would ban all advertisements about political candidates, elections and hot-button policy issues such as abortion and immigration, a significant shift that comes in response to growing concerns that politicians are seizing on the vast reach of social media to deceive voters ahead of the 2020 election.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced the move in a series of tweets, stressing that paying for political speech has the effect of “forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people.” The ban marks a break with Twitter’s social media peers, Facebook and Google-owned YouTube, which have defended their policies on political ads in recent weeks.

“While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions,” Dorsey said.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced Oct. 30 that the social network has decided to "stop all political advertising on Twitter globally." (Video: Reuters)

Twitter’s announcement covers ads intended to influence elections, including ballot measures, as well as those that address “issues of national importance.” The new rules will be applied globally, published by mid-November and take effect later in the month, Dorsey said.

The change drew a mixed reception, with some critics highlighting that it would not affect what users can tweet and share on their own. Teddy Goff, who served as President Obama’s digital director in 2012 and as senior adviser to Hillary Clinton in 2016, said any update by Twitter that does not address the “organic and algorithmic spread of hate speech and discrimination and dishonesty” is insufficient.

The Technology 202: Twitter placed the political ad ball in Facebook's court

The political ad ban also might not have much impact on widely followed accounts, including President Trump’s, whose tweets already reach more than 66 million users each day. Some critics, including Democrats, have urged Twitter to block or remove the commander in chief’s tweets, arguing that his comments are incendiary or incorrect. Twitter has declined to take action, beyond stressing some narrow cases in which it would limit the reach of tweets from a head of state.

Still, the decision illustrates a sharp symbolic rift between Dorsey and one of his peers, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who on Wednesday stood by his company’s controversial policy that essentially allows politicians to lie in ads during the tech giant’s third-quarter earnings call.

“In a democracy, I don’t think it’s right for private companies to censor politicians or the news,” Zuckerberg said.

Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said Oct. 17 that he believes Facebook should "err on the side of greater expression" when deciding what to ban. (Video: Reuters)

A Facebook policy lets politicians lie in ads, leaving Democrats fearing what Trump will do

The controversy first arose earlier this month, when former vice president Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for the White House, asked Facebook to remove a Trump campaign ad that contained multiple falsehoods. Facebook declined, prompting backlash from other 2020 contenders.

In response, Zuckerberg has defended the policy in recent weeks, stressing that the tech giant should not stand in the way of political leaders’ speech. During the earnings call, he estimated that political advertising next year would make up about 0.5 percent of Facebook’s revenue. Based on the company’s 2018 revenue, that would amount to $279 million. Facebook’s revenue next year is expected to be billions of dollars higher.

“It would be unfortunate to suggest that the only option available to social media companies … is the full withdrawal of political advertising,” Biden campaign spokesman Bill Russo said about Twitter in a statement, “but when faced with a choice between ad dollars and the integrity of our democracy, it is encouraging that, for once, revenue did not win out.”

On Wednesday, Twitter executives labored to explain their decision as a matter of principle, acknowledging that political ad spending amounted to less than $3 million during the 2018 midterm elections. Jasmine Enberg, a senior analyst at eMarketer, said it is “likely that political advertising doesn’t make up a critical part of Twitter’s core business.”

For example, Trump has run not a single ad on Twitter over the past seven days, while he’s spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars on Facebook over the same period, according to the companies’ archives. Brad Parscale, the president’s 2020 campaign manager, still blasted Twitter for the ban.

“This is yet another attempt to silence conservatives, since Twitter knows President Trump has the most sophisticated online program ever known,” Parscale said in a statement.

Political advertising has long been a thorny issue for Silicon Valley, a potential profit windfall that has come at steep costs in recent years. During the 2016 election, agents tied to the Russian government purchased promoted tweets and other forms of online ads as part of their campaign to stoke political discord, promote then-candidate Trump and undermine Democratic contender Clinton, according to congressional investigators.

Regulators responded by lambasting social media sites for failing to spot such efforts by a foreign power to interfere in U.S. elections, and the pressure resulted in major changes — including efforts by Twitter and others to more clearly label political ads, verify the people purchasing them and cache them for the public to view. Still, legislators threatened to pass new laws, arguing that online ads were subject to far fewer, less restrictive rules than broadcast television.

In his tweets, Dorsey on Wednesday endorsed those calls for new federal rules.

“Ad transparency requirements are progress, but not enough,” he said. “The internet provides entirely new capabilities, and regulators need to think past the present day to ensure a level playing field.”

Daniel Kreiss, a professor of media and journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, expressed some early concern that Twitter’s decision to ban political ads could spell particular trouble for down-ballot candidates with smaller followings online. Twitter ads, he said, are “one of the ways that candidates get their message in front of a public whose attention is extremely divided and fragmented.”

While Facebook has received much of the criticism for political advertising policies, Twitter also has experienced its share of controversy.

In August, Trump’s reelection campaign, along with major Republican committees, pulled advertising dollars from Twitter after the platform locked the campaign account for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Twitter said a video of protesters making threats against the Kentucky Republican violated its rules against threatening or promoting violence.

Marie C. Baca contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story underestimated the likely contribution of political advertising to Facebook’s revenue.