Twitter’s announcement that it would end political advertising in late October signaled a strong departure from Facebook’s own hands-off approach to political ads—a position that delighted Republicans and had the political left again slamming the world’s biggest social network for its failure to take misinformation seriously.
Now, Twitter is breaking down the details of its sweeping ad-policy changes, a shift that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has already declared will “degrade democracy” and deny Americans an “important tool” for political dissent.
On a call detailing the changes, which will kick in on Nov. 22, Twitter Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety Lead Vijaya Gadde explained that the new policy “addresses a lot of the risks that come with political advertising.”
“We’re moving really quickly here because we believe the timing is urgent,” Gadde said, citing upcoming elections and the risks posed by political misinformation.
Twitter’s new rules take a hard line, prohibiting the paid promotion of political content, which it defines broadly, across the board. The company will also no longer accept ads by government officials, political parties, candidates, social welfare organizations, and PACs or Super PACs, regardless of content. The platform defines political content as anything that “references a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive, or judicial outcome.”
“We have made this decision based on our belief that political message reach should be earned, not bought,” a Twitter rep stated in the announcement.
The platform’s issue-based ad policy—a historically gray area for social-media companies—will also see some key changes to limit microtargeting. Twitter will no longer allow issue-based ads that target zip codes and political affiliation, and it will also disable its tool that allows issue-based ads to reach “tailored audiences” as well.
Those changes are designed to address what Twitter VP of Trust & Safety Del Harvey calls “super siloed” conversations that arise when advertisers target hyper-specific audiences that might be more vulnerable to forms of misinformation.
Anyone who wants to run issue-based ads will need to go through an existing advertiser certification process, a tool that will allow the company to track advertisers and enforce its new rules.
In likely the murkiest zone of its new policy, Twitter will limit issue and cause-based ads that “drive political, judicial, legislative, or regulatory outcomes” but allow ads that encourage conversations that align with an advertiser’s “publicly stated values.” To prevent a loophole for political figures, Twitter will disallow issue-based ads that promote or reference anything that falls under its definition of political content, including candidates, legislation, and political parties. News publishers will still be allowed to run ads promoting their own “fact-based” political reporting—another major gray area—but political op-eds and endorsements won’t fly.
In a series of tweets first announcing the policy changes, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey pushed back against Mark Zuckeberg’s own characterization of political ads as a form of speech that deserves to be protected.
“This isn’t about free expression,” Dorsey said. “This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle. It’s worth stepping back in order to address.”
The company acknowledged that it will refine its policy changes over time to limit loopholes, adding that it plans to be “aggressive” in catching anyone who tries to game the system. Even with inevitable problems, Twitter’s reflective approach to political ads couldn’t be more different than Facebook’s declared “anything goes” strategy.
“We are absolutely going to make mistakes here,” Harvey said. “We believe it is far better for us to start trying to get this right… than have a solution from every potential way people will try to game this.”