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Twitter chose to ban political ads. But pressuring Facebook to do the same could backfire.

Banning political ads wouldn’t be the end of the world for Facebook, but strategists warn it could harm candidates.

Cutouts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a protest.
Activists in front of the EU headquarters in Brussels calling on CEO Mark Zuckerberg to “fix Facebook” in May 2018.
JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images

Now that Twitter is set to ban all political ads from its platform, the pressure is on for Facebook to change its controversial policy that allows politicians to lie in ads on the social media network. When Twitter announced its new policy last week, it was a public relations win for the company. But the implications of banning political ads are complicated — for Twitter, for Facebook, and for politics in general.

Some political strategists have warned that the move might favor incumbents and well-known political candidates over challengers and upstart campaigns. And when Twitter begins enforcing its new rules later this month, it seems sure to face complaints over how it defines political ads or how effectively it enforces its ban. The call to ban political ads on Twitter also ups the pressure on Facebook to do something about its political ads guidelines — but in the end, it’s the company’s call because digital advertising is largely unregulated.

“The bottom line here is that individual companies shouldn’t be doing self-regulation. Neither allowing candidates to lie nor shutting down altogether is the answer,” said Adam Bozzi, communications director for End Citizens United and a longtime Democratic operative. “The answer is that we need a set of rules and investigative and enforcement mechanisms that end the wild west era of digital advertising.”

Twitter’s ban is a quick moral victory that’s probably going to get hairy soon

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s announcement that the company was banning political ads attracted praise, giving the company an opportunity to seize the moral high ground and take a dig at Facebook — but without sacrificing much financially. Political advertising makes up a very small fraction of Twitter’s revenue — just $3 million in the 2018 midterms on $3 billion in total revenue for the company that year. For Facebook, it was an estimated $284 million, which is still a small part of its overall $55 billion in revenue.

For political campaigns, Twitter advertising isn’t a huge deal. The platform is helpful to get a message out to journalists, political activists, and influencers, but in terms of paying for ads to reach broad swaths of the public or raise a bunch of money, it’s not particularly effective. Campaigns can capitalize on moments — like Bernie Sanders did during the 2016 cycle when a bird landed serendipitously on his lectern at a rally, sparking the #BirdieSanders hashtag — but those events are generally few and far between. Facebook, meanwhile, allows political advertisers to fire up current and potential supporters and to reach broader swaths of the population in order to build out their email lists, which are crucial for fundraising.

“Twitter itself is not a really great source for list-building or persuasion,” Amanda Litman, the founder of candidate recruitment group Run for Something, told Recode. “It’s a way to build a narrative, but it isn’t a way to actually further the campaign infrastructure.”

Still, the move to ban political ads on Twitter comes with complications. Dorsey in his announcement acknowledged that ending paid ads is likely to favor incumbents and politicians who already have big followings, and it will negatively impact upstart campaigns that can make a little bit of money go a long way with social media ad targeting on the platform. How Twitter will define political advertising remains to be seen; it will lay out guidelines by November 15. In the meantime, it’s figuring out specifics, such as what types of get-out-the-vote ads will be allowed or whether organizations like Planned Parenthood and the NRA will be able to run ads.

Jenna Golden, former head of political and advocacy sales for Twitter, told Recode she believes the company’s decision to ban ads is the wrong one. “I think that there is a middle ground here,” she said.

Golden emphasized that Twitter’s ban isn’t just going to affect political ads, but also issue-based ads, meaning ads that advocate for or against legislative issues such as climate change, health care, and immigration. It will touch nonprofits, advocacy groups, and trade associations of all political stripes. “This swings on all sides of the pendulum, and those aren’t things that a lot of people are thinking about or recognize,” she said.

But even when Twitter clarifies its new policies, there’s bound to be controversy. Ads are going to get through that break the rules, campaigns are going to find workarounds, and when ads are banned, the people trying to place them are going to get mad. It will give conservatives another opportunity to make claims of bias, but it’s probably going to rile up potential advertisers of all political stripes.

“Twitter is still going to be trying to define what is political. Can it be contested? They’ve already proven themselves, just like the other platform companies, to be really bad at making those decisions,” Shannon McGregor, a political communications researcher at the University of Utah, told Recode.

Twitter declined to comment for this story.

This is going to be a big deal if there’s a domino effect

On its face, Twitter’s ban isn’t a huge deal for political campaigns because political advertising on Twitter doesn’t have that much reach. But if the company’s policy change causes others to follow suit, strategists say the implications could be significant, especially if it were a major player such as Facebook.

Right now, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and TikTok, for example, already ban political advertising. So does video streaming platform Twitch. That doesn’t mean politicians can’t use these platforms — Sanders, for example, has a Twitch channel — but they can’t advertise on them. Facebook has no plans, for now, to change its political ads policy, and it is ignoring calls to ban ads altogether. But if it were to crack down on them, it would matter.

Campaigns spend a lot of money on Facebook to build out the email lists that they heavily rely on for fundraising. So cutting that off would be a big deal, especially for newer and smaller campaigns that don’t already have big lists to work with. It would play out on a large national scale — 2020 Democrats against President Donald Trump — but also on plenty of smaller national scales — including for candidates running in local races across the country where a couple of thousand dollars on Facebook ads could make a big difference, or for progressive primary challengers to incumbent members of Congress who just need to get their names out there and find voters.

“There are still lots of other digital paths to the voter, but many, many Americans get their information from Facebook,” said Erik Smith, a partner at strategy firm Seven Letter. “The way that Facebook has organized people into digital silos is a very effective way to recruit supporters.”

Tara McGowan, an Obama alum and founder of progressive strategy group Acronym, penned a Medium post over the weekend warning that if Facebook were to ban political advertising altogether it would have “disastrous consequences” for Democrats. She notes that the Trump campaign has already spent years using paid advertising to build its community of followers to 26 million on Facebook, while 2020 Democrats lag far behind: Bernie Sanders, who has the biggest following, has just one-fifth of Trump’s. Acronym recently announced plans to spend $75 million on digital advertising across multiple platforms to counter Trump, including Facebook.

According to the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ad spending, 2020 presidential campaigns and super PACs have already spent nearly $85 million on digital advertisements on Facebook and Google this year.

The strategists I spoke with were split on how detrimental social media companies banning political ads en masse would be. Republican strategist Rory McShane said it would hurt all non-establishment and small candidates on both sides of the aisle. “Social media is the great equalizer,” he said.

Others, however, told Recode that campaigns would find workarounds, just as they always have. They would use banner ads or go to Google. “If Facebook were to ban all ads today, we could reach all the people we wanted to reach using other types of online ads,” said Alan Rosenblatt, principal at progressive strategy group Unfiltered.Media.

To be sure, part of the reason political campaigns are so dependent on paid ads on Facebook is because Facebook pushed things in that direction. It used to be a lot easier for politicians and political groups to reach the people who follow them organically than it is now. “The issue isn’t whether or not Facebook is good for reaching other people organically, it’s whether or not Facebook allows you to reach them organically,” Rosenblatt said. “They’ve rigged it so that this debate is happening.”

Facebook declined to comment for this story, but a spokesman pointed to recent comments from CEO Mark Zuckerberg in an earnings call in which he doubled down on his company’s stance. “In a democracy, I don’t think it’s right for private companies to censor politicians or the news,” Zuckerberg said.

There are bigger conversations to be had here

In the days and weeks to come, the debate over how Facebook and Twitter are regulating political ads is likely to continue. But it’s really part of a broader debate over social media, online advertising, and political speech — and whether the government needs to get involved.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission has extensive guidelines for television and radio broadcasters around political advertising, including how they disclose who’s behind ads, the amount of access they give candidates, and how much they charge. The FCC also bars broadcasters from censoring ads or from taking down ones that make false claims. But those guidelines don’t apply to online platforms.

Twitter and Facebook are in their complicated positions because there are so few rules, if any, governing them. And it’s not just them; it’s much of the internet. “All of online advertising is pretty aggressively unregulated,” Litman said.

In the wake of revelations about foreign and domestic interference during the 2016 election, voters, politicians, advocacy groups, activists, and even the companies themselves have called for the government to step in with legislation that would create more rules around political advertising online, but that hasn’t happened. And advertising is only a small piece of the puzzle in broader conversations about how political messaging — including when it’s disinformation — is spread online.