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Twitter reverses long-standing ban on political advertising

The policy was put in place under then-CEO Jack Dorsey, who said he believed political messages should be earned — not bought

Twitter reversed its long-standing approach to paid political speech at a moment when major advertisers are defecting from the beleaguered social media platform. (Jeff Chiu/AP)
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Twitter said it was relaxing its ban on political and issue-based advertising on Tuesday, a reversal of the company’s long-standing approach to paid political speech.

The policy change, which comes at a moment when major advertisers are defecting from the beleaguered social media platform, would allow candidates and advocacy groups to spend money to promote themselves and their causes on the service.

“We believe that cause-based advertising can facilitate public conversation around important topics. Today, we’re relaxing our ads policy for cause-based ads in the US. We also plan to expand the political advertising we permit in the coming weeks,” the tweet said.

A second tweet clarified that the company would first ensure its approach “to reviewing and approving content protects people on Twitter.”

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Twitter has long taken what it described as a principled stance against political advertising. When then-CEO Jack Dorsey announced the political ads bans in 2019, he said it was because he strongly believed political messaging “should be earned, not bought.” That language was then posted on the company’s website and was still there as of Tuesday afternoon.

The sudden reversal was characteristic of the slapdash and chaotic manner in which Twitter is being run under its new owner, billionaire Elon Musk. The company announced the change and promised to “share more details” as the work got underway. There was no explanation of why Twitter made the changes or how extensive the changes would be.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

Since purchasing the company in late October, Musk has initiated a whirlwind of changes. He recently said the staff is just over 2,000, down from 7,500 earlier in 2022. That means roughly 75 percent of the staff has been fired, has been pushed out or has resigned. He has rolled back policies that seek to limit covid-related misinformation and has given handpicked journalists glimpses at Twitter documents, including ordering that one be granted access to Twitter’s internal systems — causing some employees to protest that doing so was asking them to break a legal agreement. He bungled the company’s first major product launch — a paid-for blue check mark — and had to put it on pause.

While Twitter was always a marginal player in political advertising compared with Google or Facebook, Tuesday’s move will enable political groups and figures to promote themselves in upcoming electoral contests. Some high-profile Republicans have gained followers on Twitter in the months leading into Musk’s takeover, according to data analyzed by The Washington Post.

Politicians and advocacy groups have previously complained that limiting all that type of advertising because some contains misinformation is unfair. Facebook went in the opposite direction ahead of the 2020 election, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg arguing that it was not the company’s responsibility to fact-check political ads and that such ads would be allowed to run on the service.

Political ads were also relatively inconsequential for Twitter’s overall business. At the time of the ads ban, the company’s chief financial officer said political ads brought in roughly $3 million in revenue — a tiny fraction of a multibillion-dollar ad business on the platform.

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But a number of advertisers paused spending on the platform after Musk’s takeover, citing concern over its ownership, the content appearing on the site and mass layoffs. Musk, who bought the company for $44 billion, also owes roughly $1 billion in interest payments each year.

Shortly after Musk’s takeover, a flood of racist and antisemitic tweets appeared on the social media platform.

Some digital strategists cheered Tuesday’s policy change, though they said it was too early to tell how big of a player Twitter would become in 2024 political advertising. Campaigns are increasingly navigating a fragmented digital advertising environment, as voters spend more time on a wider variety of social networks — including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok.

But other major social networks — including TikTok — continue to have broad political advertising bans in place.

“Obviously it’s good to have more options,” Republican digital strategist Eric Wilson said. He said that there would be a “learning curve” for campaigns returning to Twitter, because their data on the platform’s efficacy is outdated, and that they would have to navigate any changes that Twitter has made to its advertising tools.

However, he said political campaigns would probably spend on the platform, as long as it continues to be used by journalists.

“We know voters are not as active on Twitter as they are on places like Facebook and Instagram,” he said. “But it remains important for shaping political narratives.”

Cat Zakrzewski contributed to this report.