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Twitter flags Trump, Biden, Warren campaigns, citing ad policy violations

But it's unclear if anyone actually violated the site's political-ad ban. Twitter's Ads Transparency Center makes it tough to figure out what's going on.

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Angela Lang/CNET

Twitter's searchable online ads database is filled with confusing labels on accounts maintained by political campaigns, making it difficult for the public to assess whether the social network is enforcing its ban on political advertising.

Twitter flagged the campaign accounts of presidential candidates, including incumbent Donald Trump and rival Joe Biden, as "suspended" in the ads database, saying they'd violated the company's policies. The accounts remain active on the social network, and it's unclear whether any violations actually occurred. Twitter, which bans political advertising, changed the wording in the database to "ineligible for Twitter Ads" after CNET inquired about the labels on Thursday.

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Twitter's ads database states that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders paid to promote hundreds of tweets that violated its rules. 

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

Accounts for Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and 11 other Democratic candidates were also initially labeled as suspended in the database, Twitter's Ads Transparency Center, which is designed to give users insight into who's paying to promote tweets. The database, which is similar to one maintained by rival Facebook, was created after social media companies were criticized for not doing enough to prevent Russian trolls from using them to sow discord during the 2016 US presidential election.

The Twitter database showed scores of tweets by the candidates' campaigns as having been pulled down, giving the appearance that some had posted hundreds of messages that violated the social network's rules after the ban. "This Tweet is not available because it includes content that violated Twitter Ads Policies," the database says for affected tweets.

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Trump's reelection campaign's account and other accounts were marked as "suspended" before being changed to "ineligible for Twitter Ads."

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

The notice pops up hundreds of times on Sanders' page in between political ads that the campaign has run in the past. The same notice about violating tweets appears on the Trump reelection campaign's page 10 times without any past political ads shown.

"Nothing surprises us," a spokesperson for the Trump campaign said in a statement. "We remain concerned about Twitter's rules being applied unfairly and suspicious about the company's commitment to parity."

Warren, Biden and Sanders' campaigns didn't immediately comment. S.Y. Lee, the national press secretary for Andrew Yang's presidential campaign, said the campaign hasn't run ads since well before the ban began on Nov. 22. Tweets on Yang's page are marked with a notice about violating the company's policy, suggesting the label might have been applied to old political ads that candidates and groups ran.

The wording changes and apparent inconsistencies in Twitter's database make it difficult to determine if the social network is effectively or uniformly enforcing its ban on political advertising. An account for the presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick wasn't initially labeled as suspended even though the database says he runs political ads from it. The account was marked ineligible after CNET's inquiry. The bottom of the notice says that "Twitter suspends accounts which violate Twitter Ads policies."

"It certainly makes it look as if it's the candidate who's really run afoul of some guidelines and that they are being punished," said Liz Woolery, the deputy director of the free expression project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonpartisan advocacy group. "That in itself represents a particular image to voters and viewers."

Woolery said an important part of transparency is making sure the public understands what data they're seeing. Auditing of ads databases could help ensure they're accurate, she said.

Last month, Twitter banned advertising for political candidates, a move that set it apart from Facebook, which accepts political ads and doesn't fact-check them. Twitter still accepts ads about political issues, such as immigration and climate change, as long as they don't advocate for a candidate or legislation.

Nick Pacilio, a Twitter spokesman, said accounts are flagged in the database because they're no longer allowed to run ads due to the company's ban, not because the accounts have been taken down. Certified campaign accounts were labeled, but not those associated solely with politicians, Pacilio said. For example, Trump's campaign account was marked but not his personal account.

The suspended/ineligible label has also been applied to politicians of both parties at the state level, along with some advocacy groups.

Planned Parenthood Action and Vote Pro Choice, both of which campaign for maintaining abortion rights, and America First Policies, a nonprofit that supports Trump policies, are prohibited from running ads, according to the database. Other groups aren't prohibited, such as American Action Network, a conservative issue advocacy group, the American Civil Liberties Union and 314action, which advocates for scientists to run for office.

The ACLU, AAN and 314action are 501(c)4 social welfare groups, which Twitter says aren't allowed to advertise on the site in the US. It's unclear why they aren't marked as ineligible in the database.

Twitter didn't respond to numerous follow-up questions about the accuracy of the ads database and why changes were made without any notice.

Anyone can use Twitter's ads database, including journalists and researchers tracking how the company is enforcing its policies. The CDT's Woolery says Twitter and other social media companies need to ensure the databases are maintained and useful.

"It is one thing to provide a database and put that information out there and say it includes transparency," Woolery said. "It is another thing to be able to prove that."

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