Twitter unveils final details for political ad ban, but it's still looking murky

Key Points
  • Twitter laid out the framework for its new policy on political ads, which bans certain advertisers and has stricter rules for issue ads.
  • The policy makes exceptions for certain cause-based ads and news publishers already exempt from its issue ads policy.
  • It’s still not entirely clear how Twitter will police many types of ads under its new policy, which stands in stark contrast to Facebook’s approach.
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey are sworn-in for a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing concerning foreign influence operations' use of social media platforms, on Capitol Hill, September 5, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Twitter has outlined details of its new political advertisement policy, weeks after its CEO Jack Dorsey announced on Twitter that the platform would no longer allow those ads.

But even though the company aimed to clear up how the policy will unfold, some big questions remain.

Twitter's new changes will globally ban the promotion of political content and ads of any type from political figures like candidates, political parties and government officials. It will also govern what it calls "cause-based" ads, which will be restricted in terms of targeted advertising and require a certification process to run. The new policy will take effect Nov. 22.

The new policy comes amid a major debate about whether big tech platforms should allow political ads on their sites. After Twitter denounced the practice in late October, Facebook maintained its controversial policy to allow political ads containing misleading information. Meanwhile, Google has stayed largely silent in the skirmish, but both Google and Facebook have reportedly been mulling changes amid pressure. The conversation has incited concerns around the ability of political players to use the tech companies as a conduit to micro-target messages to narrow segments and influence election outcomes.

Twitter says it defines political advertising as referencing "a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive or judicial outcome." Ads that appeal for votes or financial support will be prohibited. The policy will also ban advocacy for or against any of those types of political content that will be prohibited in the policy.

The policy prohibits ads of any type by candidates, political parties or government officials that are elected or appointed. In the U.S., ads from PACs and SuperPACs, and 501(c)(4), or tax-exempt social welfare organizations, will also be prohibited.

In a call Friday with Vijaya Gadde, Twitter's legal, policy and trust and safety lead, and Del Harvey, vice president of trust and safety, acknowledged that the new policy would be somewhat fluid.

"We're moving very quickly here because we think that the timing is urgent," Gadde said, adding that elections are coming up. "We're also prepared that we're going to make some mistakes and we're going to have to learn and improve this policy over time."

Limits on targeting cause-based ads

While several political ad experts disagree with Twitter's approach to ban political ads altogether, an action that many believe will help incumbent candidates over challengers, they also say micro-targeting is often the true source of harm of digital political ads. Twitter's new policy will limit micro-targeting, in line with many researchers' suggestions.

Micro-targeting is "serving up ads or content to these narrowly-sliced segments, personalizing them and taking advantage of vulnerabilities," Rutgers Law School professor Ellen Goodman previously told CNBC. Twitter's new policy states that cause-based ads cannot be targeted by ZIP code or tailored audiences and may not include terms associated with prohibited advertisers or political content or affiliations.

Twitter might face similar issues to Facebook with its new rules about cause-based advertising, which it says will restrict promotion of and require advertiser certification if it educates, raises awareness of or calls for action on the topics of "civic engagement, economic growth, environmental stewardship or social equity." Twitter has an existing certification process in place for advertisers that wanted to run issue ads in relation to candidates, elections and specific legislation.

In response to a question about whether Twitter would take action on ads with false information, Harvey said the company has often seen public conversations take place around false posts on Twitter. By being an open platform, she said, people can be held accountable by other users. Twitter is trying to avoid those conversations on certain topics from being siloed, she added.

It's unclear if Twitter would release a list of categories that would be considered "caused-based advertising."

Exemptions for news publishers

Twitter's new policy includes a narrow caveat for news publishers who are already exempt from the company's issue ads policy. Publishers may advertise based on fact-based reporting, but cannot buy ads that advocate for or against a political candidate or any other banned topic. Publishers may not post a political endorsement as an ad, for example.

Publishers must already meet Twitter's criteria to be considered exempt, Harvey said on a call with reporters. State-run media, for example, is already banned from advertising on Twitter. To meet Twitter's exemption criteria under its issue ads policy, publishers must receive at least 200,000 unique monthly visitors in the U.S., not be primarily user-generated and not dedicated to advocating on a single issue, among other factors.

Under its own policy, Twitter will be forced to walk a fine line when determining what constitutes fact-based reporting rather than advocacy. The company has already been a target of conservative lawmakers who have claimed the company's approach to content moderation is influenced by political bias. Twitter's decisions on which ads publishers can run as well as who can run them will be highly scrutinized by its users and lawmakers alike.

Tim Armstrong: Twitter's political ad announcement was smart
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