Advocacy groups fear impact of Twitter political ad ban

Advocacy groups fear impact of Twitter political ad ban
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Advocacy groups and trade associations are worried that Twitter's decision to ban all political advertisements could hurt their efforts to use digital marketing to promote their issues.

One source told The Hill the Twitter announcement sent "shock waves" through public affairs professionals in Washington.

Twitter on Wednesday said that it would begin banning ads that "advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance," as well as references to an election or candidate.

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In Washington, trade associations and coalitions use Twitter to get eyes on their campaigns. While Twitter is still working to finalize its rules, the changes are likely to force those groups to rework how they speak to elected officials, stakeholders and the public through social media.

"The advocacy organizations can no longer run ads around the issues that matter to them. If I am AARP and I need to reach key people across the country to have them advocate for legislation so we can protect seniors and their healthcare, they can't do that anymore," consultant Jenna Golden told The Hill. 

The political advertising on Twitter is just a fraction of the numbers pulled in by rivals Facebook and Google, but at least one prominent lobbying group, PhRMA, has spent heavily on the platform.

PhRMA has spent more than $2 million on Twitter ads over the years, a sum that includes political advertising as well as general advertising for their organization. General advertising would be allowed under the new Twitter policy.

The Association for Accessible Medicines (AAM) has spent $143,900, the Chamber of Commerce more than $200,000, and the National Association of Manufacturers has spent more than $230,000, among others, according to Twitter's Ads Transparency Center. AARP, through its Twitter handle AARP Advocates, has spent a little more than $100,000 on Twitter ads. 

PhRMA and NAM denied the Hill's request for comment and AARP and the Chamber did not respond to a request for comment.

Twitter's announcement received praise from many Democrats but criticism from the right, including President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election MORE's campaign, which questioned if the move amounted to censorship.

Golden ran political advertising sales for Twitter during the 2012 and 2016 elections and left the company in July 2017 to start her own sales consulting firm.

She said the new policy could hurt smaller Twitter accounts, while empowering larger ones.

"It favors people who have massive organic followings like Donald Trump. What it doesn't do is allow for a new candidate that nobody knows to be able to reach key people in a particular state," Golden said.

Similarly, some worry smaller trade associations could be hit the hardest. Advertising for those groups is essential for fundraising, sources said.

"The biggest one that's going to get hit is the advocacy groups because their supporters are also donors and missing them could hurt the organization. Especially the smaller groups that are looking for new donors or looking for new supporters," Nick DeSarno, Public Affairs Council director of digital and policy communications, told The Hill.

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There are still many questions about the scope of Twitter's ban. Some asked how Twitter will deal with companies who are politically active.

"I don't think they've done a good job of explaining how this affects corporations. So, very often, we see corporate advertisers taking political stances these days. Is that allowed? Or is that technically a political or advocacy advertisement?" Golden said.

DeSarno said there could be effects beyond the national level.

"Further down the line, when you have a company that is fighting a local legislative issue and they're running ads about the good work the company is doing, that has a political purpose. I wonder if that will be struck down," DeSarno said. 

But others are downplaying Twitter's decision, noting that trade associations use multiple platforms to advertise.

"Sure, this will naturally have some impact on the public affairs space but it underscores the importance of deploying a multi-faceted strategy for clients," said Kimberley Fritts, CEO of Cogent Strategies.

Asked for a response, Twitter directed The Hill to a tweet on Wednesday from Vijaya Gadde, Twitter's legal and policy chief. Gadde said the company was "working through the details now."  

"We will provide more details on the final definition and a few well defined exceptions (like voter registration efforts) on 11/15," she added.

Many public affairs professionals worry about other companies following Twitter's lead.

Twitter's decision was also seen as a jab at Facebook, which has been under fire for its own policies on political ads.

Facebook has refused to subject political ads to fact-checking and has declined to take down ads with false or misleading claims. Democrats have hammered the company over a Trump campaign ad that accuses former Vice President Biden of corruption without evidence.

Twitter's move is putting more scrutiny on Facebook, with Democrats including Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy 'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter Resistance or unhinged behavior? Partisan hatred reaches Trump's family MORE calling on the company to follow suit.

"If Facebook takes that away … I think you're going to see policymakers decide to take action," DeSarno predicted. "Create a set of framework, a regulation, but mandate that every candidate, every political organization, should be able to purchase ads just like they're able to buy TV ads currently."

But he noted that Facebook has much higher stakes in political ads. 

"If this was Facebook, it would be a big difference because of the amount of money that's spent on Facebook advertisements."

Updated on Nov. 3 at 9:10 a.m.