Twitter will no longer allow political and issue ads on the platform, CEO Jack Dorsey announced 40 minutes ahead of Facebook’s Q3 earnings call. The final policy on political ads will be released by November 15 and will be enforced from November 22, to give advertisers enough notice period.

This now pits the two social media giants against each other when it comes to regulating (or not) political speech on their respective platforms. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, has spent much of this month arguing that Facebook will not adjudicate political speech at all, both in organic content and in ads.

What is a political ad?

Vijaya Gadde, the Lead Counsel at Twitter, defined political ads in a tweet as “ads that refer to an election or a candidate” or “ads that advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance (such as: climate change, healthcare, immigration, national security, taxes)”. She, in a reply, said that it would include ads related to abortion. As Dorsey said in his thread, there will be exceptions to political ads, such as, ads in support of voter registration will still be allowed, but these will be clarified only in the final policy. The ban will include both candidate and issue ads.

‘Not about free expression, but about paying for political reach’: Dorsey throws shade at Zuckerberg

Dorsey’s entire thread, including its timing, was aimed at lambasting Facebook’s stance on political ads. Sent out a mere 40 minutes before Facebook’s Q3 earnings call, Dorsey said that political advertising doesn’t allow the users to choose whether they want to engage with it or not as it is “highly optimised and targeted”. As per him, following an account or retweeting should be enough for purposes of expanding political reach.

Citing the “significant risk to politics” that internet advertising brings, Dorsey said that Twitter would focus on issues of machine learning- based messaging optimisation and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information and deep fakes, without making them more complex with money. His argument against incumbents benefitting from this move was a direct retort to the statement Zuckerberg made at Georgetown University: “I don’t believe that not fact-checking political ads is pro-conservative. … It’s pro-challenger. I believe that banning political ads favors incumbents … and favors people who the media would choose not to cover.”

In a significant move, Dorsey also called for political ad regulation by an external regulator. And his assumption of a moral high ground — “This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach. … It’s worth stepping back in order to address [it].” — was his final adieu to Zuckerberg’s First Amendment argument.

As per Ned Segal, Twitter CFO, political ad spend during 2018 US midterms was less than $3 million.

How will this be enforced? MediaNama asks

It is clear that Twitter is now treating political ads as “push” content, that is, content that users don’t actively choose to view. And it is treating organic content (tweets, retweets, followed accounts) as “pull” content that users actively seek out. Twitter will now globally arbitrate what is political and what is a “legislative issue of national importance” when it vets ads. This raises significant questions:

  • Legislative issues of national importance are very country-specific. Who will adjudicate what is political and what is not? Is Twitter planning to expand its ads and/or policy division to adjudicate such ads across the world?
  • What happens when incumbent governments run political ads or ads about schemes that are polarising? For instance, if the Indian government were to run an ad hailing the abrogation of Article 370, would it be permitted?
  • If issue ads are included, does that mean NGOs and not-for-profits won’t be able to advertise? What happens to something like Planned Parenthood or Greenpeace? What happens to social advocacy? Will it only be dependent on organic content?
  • What happens if an individual, or a non-candidate creates such an issue ad?
  • What happens to protest ads?
  • If the UN runs an ad that talks about climate change, will it be banned?

Twitter declined to make further clarifications to MediaNama’s queries.

‘I don’t think it’s right for private companies to censor politicians or the news,’ says Zuckerberg 40 minutes later

In its earnings call 40 minutes later, Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, talked about Facebook’s policy on political ads and made oblique references to Dorsey’s announcement

“I can assure you, from a business perspective, the controversy this creates far outweighs the very small percent of our business that these political ads make up. We estimate these ads from politicians will be less than 0.5% of our revenue next year. That’s not why we’re doing this. To put this in perspective, the FTC fine that these same critics said wouldn’t be enough to change our incentives was more than 10x bigger than this. The reality is we believe deeply that political speech is important, and that’s what is driving us.” — Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook’s Q3 earnings announcement

“[I]t’s hard to define where to draw the line. Would we really want to block ads for important political issues like climate change or women’s empowerment? Instead, I believe the better approach is to work to increase transparency.” — Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook’s Q3 earnings announcement

“Helping people understand who is trying to influence their vote – without becoming arbiters of political truth ourselves – is critical to empowering people and keeping them safe.” — Sheryl Sandberg on transparency of advertising on Facebook

Snapshot: Facebook and Twitter’s Q3 figures

Facebook
Total revenue: $17.65 billion, up 29%
Ad revenue: $17.38 billion, up 28% YoY
Daily active users: 1.62 billion, up 9%, led by growth in India, Indonesia and Philippines
Monthly active users: 2.45 billion, grew by 8%

Twitter
Total revenue: $824 million, grew 9% YoY
Ad revenue: $702 million, up 8% YoY
Daily active users: 145 million