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Twitter’s new rules ban political ads from candidates but not ads about causes

(J. David Ake/AP)

Twitter will allow some organizations to continue advertising about social, economic and environmental issues even after it implements a new policy later this month that bans politicians from sponsoring tweets.

The tech company’s revised rules, revealed on Friday, come in response to growing concerns that office-seekers, government officials and their allies are too easily able to weaponize popular social media services and pay to promote falsehoods — though some experts still questioned whether Twitter had struck the right balance in crafting its new approach.

Come next week, businesses and activists can pay to promote their messages around broadly defined political causes, including “civic engagement” and “social equity,” so long as they don’t advocate for or against a candidate, legislative proposal or election.

Twitter said it also would limit the way these advertisers target their messages — prohibiting them, for example, from running ads that appear only to people who harbor certain political leanings.

Advertising from candidates and a wide range of other political actors, including political action committees and dark-money spending groups, would be banned outright, Twitter said, fulfilling a commitment it first revealed Oct. 30 earlier to limit such ads globally.

“We believe political messaging should earn their reach,” said Vijaya Gadde, who oversees legal, policy and trust and safety at Twitter. “It’s a big change for us as a company but one we believe is going to make our service and ultimately political outcomes around the world better.”

Twitter’s efforts come in response to a controversy stirred by President Trump’s 2020 campaign, which ran false ads on Facebook and Google-owned YouTube targeting former vice president Joe Biden, a Democratic contender for the White House. The two companies have declined to remove the ads and, unlike Twitter, have announced no major changes to their rules around election advertising even in the face of overwhelming, wide-ranging public pressure.

Why did Google take action against some pro-Trump ads? It’s one of the many mysteries of its political ad rules.

At the same time, though, Twitter’s new prohibitions could spark concerns of their own. They do little in response to Trump, for example, whose controversial, unpaid tweets — which frequently contain falsehoods — are viewed by more than 66 million users each day. That has produced an outcry among Democrats and digital-rights experts, who have asked Twitter to limit Trump’s reach. And Twitter’s new rules don’t include any new fact-checking requirements, meaning the educational ads about causes that it does allow theoretically could include misinformation.

“Anyone — whether they’re running an ad or not — can be held accountable for what they say and their actions in this space,” Del Harvey, the vice president for trust and safety at Twitter, said in response to that criticism, noting that Twitter’s new guidelines would make it easier for people to spot such falsehoods and react to them.

Pro-Trump super PACs draw scrutiny for Facebook ads seeking voter registration data

Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Utah, said she disagreed with the platform’s decision to police the boundary between political and nonpolitical speech. In an apparent effort to remove itself from the thicket of regulating political speech, she said, Twitter had stepped into even more potentially perilous territory.

“We’ve seen both for Twitter and other platforms the real challenges of defining what is and what is not political — how contestable that is, from the public’s point of view and also from the perspective of actors who are trying to place ads,” McGregor said. “And doing that at scale, it doesn’t seem feasible.”

She also said she feared the effect for local and down-ballot candidates, who depend on advertising to break into a crowded media environment — one that gives an advantage to politicians with a large number of Twitter followers, like Trump, who are less reliant on paid messaging on Twitter to gain notice.

Political ads generate far less revenue for Twitter than for its tech peers: Twitter executives said last month that the 2018 congressional midterms brought in less than $3 million for the company. Instead, major candidates have flocked to Facebook and its photo-sharing app, Instagram, as well as Google and its sprawling web empire, from search to video.

The massive spending by Trump and his allies on Facebook in particular has alarmed the president’s critics, leading to efforts by deep-pocketed Democrats to counter him on digital platforms. On Friday, aides to former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is weighing a bid for the Democratic nomination, said he would spend $100 million on online ads assailing Trump in four battleground states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona.