Twitter bans political ads: Influence is 'earned, not bought'

Misinformation in political ads bring "significant ramifications that today's democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle," Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said.

Twitter bans political ads: Influence is 'earned, not bought'
  • Twitter's ban on political ads will go into effect in November.
  • Facebook, meanwhile, recently changed its policies to allow political ads—even those which contain lies—to run on its platform.
  • The reactions to Twitter's ban have been mixed, but some have noted that it could hinder the ability of lesser-known candidates to bring their message to the public.


One month after Facebook decided to allow political advertisements to run on its platform without any kind of fact-checking, Twitter announced on Wednesday plans for the exact opposite approach: ban 'em all.

"We've made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought," Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted.

"A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money."

Twitter said its ban will go into effect November 22, with full details released by November 15, nearly one year before the 2020 presidential election. The move seems to acknowledge the role that social media played in allowing misinformation to fester online in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

For Twitter, banning all political ads is the nuclear solution to a problem that's currently unsolvable: How can a social media company effectively police every single political ad? Where's the line between false and misleading? How can platforms avoid claims of censorship or partiality?

There's also a simple cost-benefit for Twitter. According to Twitter CFO Ned Segal, political campaign ad spending for the 2018 midterm elections earned the company less than $3 million, which is one one-thousandth of its $3 billion annual revenue. Effectively policing all political ads would likely cost far more.

But Twitter also plans to ban all ads that discuss political issues such as climate change, healthcare, immigration, national security, and taxes, according to Vijaya Gadde, Twitter's head of legal, policy, trust and safety. It might prove hard to clearly separate which ads fall into this category.

Meanwhile, Facebook is taking a hands-off approach to political ads, deciding that even false or misleading ads can run on its platform. In an internal company letter aimed at leadership, more than 250 Facebook employees said this week that the social media platform should change policies and closely scrutinize political ads.

"Free speech and paid speech are not the same thing," the internal Facebook letter reads, according to a copy of it published by The New York Times. Dorsey tweeted a similar message Wednesday, saying political reach "should be earned, not bought."

But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the decision to run political ads is based on freedom of speech, not greed.

"I get that some people will disagree with our decisions," he said in a call with Wall Street analysts shortly after announcing the company's third-quarter performance. "But I don't think anyone can say we're not doing what we believe, or that we haven't thought hard about these issues."

Still, if Facebook wants to say that free speech is the reason it's allowing political ads (including false ones) on its platform, it's worth noting what the First Amendment decidedly doesn't protect: outright lying about a candidate to hurt their reputation.

​Reactions to Facebook and Twitter

Some conservatives were quick to criticize Twitter's decision. President Trump's campaign manager, Brad Parscale, called it "another attempt by the left to silence Trump and conservatives." Of course, it's unclear why the move would affect the right more than the left.

Meanwhile, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York praised Twitter's move, as did Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana and a 2020 presidential candidate.

But Twitter's move might also hurt lesser-known candidates' ability to reach an audience, as The Intercept's Ryan Grim wrote Thursday.

Twitter's move puts pressure on Facebook to either follow suit or start policing political ads. It's also easy to see how Facebook could face major backlash if online misinformation helps to shift the course of the upcoming presidential election. Still, even if all social media platforms ban political ads, that would not be tantamount to banning misinformation.

"Paid ads are just a small piece of an insidious issue: Hate speech, racism, white supremacy, and content that incites violence remain widespread online, and especially on Twitter," Jessica González, co-founder of Change the Terms, a coalition of more than 50 civil rights groups, nonprofits and other organizations, said in a statement. "Banning political ads alone is not nearly enough to make Twitter a place for healthy conversations."

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