What Twitter’s Political Ad Ban Means for Digital Campaigners

On October 30, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced, via Tweet thread, that the social media platform would stop “forcing optimized and targeted political messages on people” by cutting off all political ad buys. This comes amidst a controversial debate about toxic discourse on social media, and the appropriate levels of self-regulation, or possible congressional regulation while respecting Constitutionally protected speech. Dorsey’s ban on all political buys marks a seismic break with the content strategy outlined by Facebook as the nation hurtles into the 2020 presidential campaign season.

Facebook policy updates earlier in the month specifically excused political candidates from the fact-checking tests that govern all other ad buys on the platform. As of September 2019 the Facebook policy stated that “Ads, landing pages, and business practices must not contain deceptive, false, or misleading content, including deceptive claims, offers, or methods.” The next month, newsletter Popular Information confronted a Facebook spokesperson with blatantly-false campaign ads, and was told that the fact checking requirements no longer apply to candidates for political office. Within a week, hundreds of Facebook employees would sign on to a letter directed at CEO Mark Zuckerberg, warning that misinformation was “a threat to what FB stands for.”

The decision to ban all paid electioneering on Twitter may increase scrutiny of competitor platforms, but only represents a blip, dollar-for-dollar, when compared to the larger digital ecosystem. A February 2019 study (PDF) by four New York University professors shows that Facebook is still by far the dominant platform for relevant ad buys. The table below is excerpted from NYU and shows weekly advertising metrics on behalf of federal candidates over several months leading up to the 2018 midterm elections.

Twitter

Facebook

Number of ads

1K

161K

Impressions

280M – 3B

800M – 2.4B

Budget (USD)

$13.5M

$12M – $60M

Data via New York University

News stories about Twitter’s most famous users, including President Trump, prominent journalists and celebrities, can give a misleading impression about the popularity of the social media site. Among the general public, Facebook and Instagram remain far and away the most widely used sharing platforms. And their importance is reflected in the large proportion of advertising spending directed towards Mark Zuckerberg’s companies. The decision to ban political ads on Twitter won’t in itself sway many voters – keep your eye on Facebook for the advertising ecosystem that matters in 2020.

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