Twitter shakes up fight over online political ads

Twitter shakes up fight over online political ads
© Getty

Twitter's surprising decision to ban all political advertisements is shaking up the debate over how online platforms moderate political speech from public officials and candidates.

The company earned a wave of praise from Democrats over its move, announced Wednesday, but faced harsh criticism from many on the right, who questioned if it amounted to censorship.

The reactions only underscored the contentious nature of the debate. Far from resolving the matter, Twitter's decision will likely subject the company to more scrutiny as it finalizes its rules and walks a tightrope between cracking down on misinformation and protecting speech. And it will increase pressure on other platforms to reexamine their own policies.


Twitter's political ad ban capitalized on the whirlwind of controversy surrounding larger rival Facebook, which has spent weeks defending its policy to not fact-check or block advertisements from politicians with false or misleading claims.

In an era of a broad Washington skepticism and scrutiny of Big Tech, Twitter received praise from Democratic lawmakers, many of whom said Facebook should follow suit.

“Twitter is fulfilling its responsibility to avoid becoming a cesspool of falsehood,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), one of the top tech critics in the Senate, told reporters on Thursday. “My hope is that Facebook and Google will follow their example.” 

But critics on the right — including President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE's campaign — strongly pushed back at the ban, accusing the platform of caving to Democrats and stifling free expression.

Trump campaign manager Brad ParscaleBradley (Brad) James ParscaleMORE blasted the ban as a "dumb" decision in a statement on Thursday night, claiming “biased liberal media outlets … will now run unchecked as they buy obvious political content meant to attack Republicans.” 

Conservatives have increasingly accused the major social media platforms of routinely censoring right-wing voices and stifling unpopular viewpoints, an accusation that tech companies and experts say lacks any evidence. Twitter’s new policy on political ads policy now has the company back in the center of that debate. 

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGrassley says disclosing Trump's tax records without authorization could violate law Supreme Court nominee gives no clues in GOP meeting Barrett to sit with McConnell and other GOP senators in back-to-back meetings MORE (R-Texas), a vociferous Big Tech antagonist, told reporters that this time, he thinks “Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Productivity, fatigue, cybersecurity emerge as top concerns amid pandemic | Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board | Google to temporarily bar election ads after polls close Conservative groups seek to block Facebook election grants in four swing states: report Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board MORE is right, Jack Dorsey is wrong,” referring to the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter, respectively. 

“For social media to be in the business of banning and censoring political speech, of silencing candidates for office, silencing citizen groups and silencing individual citizens, is profoundly harmful to our democratic process,” Cruz said. He raised concerns that the policy will favor “incumbents,” or political candidates who already have significant social media followings.

Neil Chilson, senior research fellow for technology at the right-wing Charles Koch Institute, said he believes social media platforms should “protect free expression.”

“Blocking broad categories of political speech because of political pressure or business convenience disserves the long-term interests of platform users and of society more broadly,” he argued, echoing sentiments from multiple Republican lawmakers.

Twitter’s policy, which the company will officially unveil in mid-November, will ban ads that refer to an election or candidate, and those that “advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance,” according to the company.  

But many have questioned how far-reaching the decision would be for Twitter. Twitter has revealed that political advertisements accounted for less than $3 million in revenue around the 2018 midterm elections and do not make up the bulk of its business model. By comparison, Facebook received about 0.5 percent of its revenue from politicians’ ads last year, amounting to about $279 million.  

Twitter’s decision has allowed the platform to attract goodwill among Democrats and progressive activists who are furious with Facebook over its refusal to remove a Trump campaign ad that they say touted misinformation about former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE.

Left-wing advocacy organization MoveOn started a petition calling on Facebook and YouTube to follow Twitter’s lead, calling the political ad ban “refreshing.”

“It recognizes that paid political ads threaten the credibility of platforms and allow bad actors to exploit loopholes that corporations like Facebook have created in the pursuit of profit,” MoveOn wrote in a description for the petition, which had garnered almost 2,500 signatures by Thursday night.  

On Capitol Hill, Dorsey’s decision was lauded even by lawmakers who have laid into Twitter over other issues including its failure to stave off foreign election interference and protect users’ privacy.

“I think it’s clear that they’re trying to make a principled decision,” Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenBottom line Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline MORE (D-Ore.) told The Hill. “If Facebook believes what they’ve been saying, and aren’t just caving in to the alt-right, they’ll just say, ‘We’re gonna have the same standard.' ” 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDemocrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate Trump Jr on father's taxes: 'People don't understand what goes into a business' Ocasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' MORE (D-N.Y.), a progressive darling who grilled Zuckerberg at a congressional hearing over the company’s political ads policies earlier this month, tweeted, “This is a good call. Not allowing for paid disinformation is one of the most basic, ethical decisions a company can make."

Over the past month, Zuckerberg has riled up the left as he engaged in an unusually public effort to defend Facebook’s decision not to send political advertisements to third-party fact-checkers. He has framed it as an issue of “free expression.” 

Zuckerberg doubled down shortly after Twitter's move.

“Ads can be an important part of voice — especially for candidates and advocacy groups the media might not otherwise cover so they can get their message into debates," Zuckerberg told investors during Facebook’s quarterly earnings call on Wednesday, an hour after Dorsey’s announcement.

In a Twitter thread announcing the policy change, Dorsey hit directly at Zuckerberg’s defense, writing, “This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach." 

Twitter has recently increased the number of ads users see as they scroll through their timelines. And its decision to eschew political ads altogether will allow the company to avoid the relentless headlines and high-profile headaches that will confront Facebook as new controversial political ads emerge, industry watchers have noted.

Not all Republicans piled onto Twitter on Thursday, though. Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump official releases unverified Russian intel on Clinton previously rejected by Senate panel Barrett says Trump offered her Supreme Court nomination three days after Ginsburg death Supreme Court nominee gives no clues in GOP meeting MORE (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleySenate Democrats want to avoid Kavanaugh 2.0 Trump, GOP aim to complete reshaping of federal judiciary In losing China tariffs at the WTO, the US dodged a bullet MORE (R-Mo.) both defended the ban as a private company’s rightful decision. 

“That is a business decision,” Graham told reporters on Thursday. “They don’t have to run political ads. They are a private company ... I don’t think there is a law in America that you have got to run a political ad.” 

Hawley, who has taken big tech companies including Facebook and Google to task over his concerns that they are too big and powerful, told reporters that it’s a “business decision.”

But he added that he will be watching to see how those rules are implemented by Twitter.

“I don’t think it’s censorship,” Hawley said. “But I do think that it’s ultimately a distraction from the main issue, which is that these companies — Twitter, Facebook, Google — have such centralized control of the information flow in this country."

“Any time you have that kind of centralized control, free speech inevitably gets pressed upon,” he said. “Dorsey and Zuckerberg are trying to distract from that in different ways but it’s really their whole model and, frankly, their monopoly status that is the problem.”