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Twitter's decision to halt political ads puts more pressure on Facebook

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey says political reach should be "earned, not bought." Trump's 2020 campaign called it a "very dumb decision."

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Twitter is ditching political ads. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Twitter will stop selling ads concerning candidates for office, elections or political issues such as climate change and immigration, the company's CEO said Wednesday, staking out a position that sets the social network apart from industry giant Facebook. In a series of 11 tweets, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey unveiled the changes, which will take effect next month. He argued that the reach of political messages "should be earned" by getting people to follow an account or share a tweet instead of "bought" through advertising.

Internet advertising, Dorsey added, presents new challenges that require Twitter to change its practices. Those challenges include micro-targeting of audiences, manipulated videos known as deepfakes and messages optimized by machine learning.

"This isn't about free expression. This is about paying for reach," Dorsey tweeted. "And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today's democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle." 

The change in Twitter's policy comes as the debate over political messages on social media intensifies ahead of the 2020 US elections. Facebook, which allows politicians to lie in ads, has been criticized for allowing the spread of misinformation. Facebook executives defended the policy, saying it safeguards free speech.

Misinformation played a role in the 2016 presidential election, with Russians trolls purchasing Facebook ads in an effort to sow discord among Americans. Other social media companies, such as short-form video app TikTok, have barred political ads in order to protect its light-hearted culture.

Twitter's policy change drew mixed reactions from Facebook, politicians, analysts and civil rights advocates. Some Democrats praised Twitter, stating that banning political ads will help protect democracy, while President Donald Trump's reelection campaign saw the decision as a move to censor conservative speech. Civil rights groups and analysts pointed out that politicians don't need to buy ads in order to reach a large audience and barring ads might do little to curb the spread of misinformation. 

Trump, who uses Twitter regularly, has more than 66.4 million followers on the platform. He's been accused of violating the company's rules against threats and hate speech, but Twitter hasn't booted him from the platform. In June, Twitter said it would put a warning notice over tweets from certain politicians that violate its rules but are left up in public interest. 

"Paid ads are just a small piece of an insidious issue: Hate speech, racism, white supremacy, and content that incites violence remain widespread online, and especially on Twitter," Jessica González, co-founder of Change the Terms, a coalition of more than 50 civil rights groups, nonprofits and other organizations, said in a statement. "Banning political ads alone is not nearly enough to make Twitter a place for healthy conversations."

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Opposing views

Twitter's move puts more pressure on Facebook to follow suit. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, challenged the massive social network to also ban political ads. "This is the right thing to do for democracy in America and all over the world," Clinton tweeted.

Facebook signaled on Wednesday that it doesn't plan to change its mind. During a call with analysts after releasing better-than-expected earnings, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said barring ads would hurt advocacy groups and political candidates the media chooses not to cover. "Ads can be an important part of voice," he said.

Zuckerberg also pointed out that Google, YouTube, most cable networks and national broadcasters run the same political ads as Facebook does. 

"In a democracy, I don't think it's right for private companies to censor politicians or the news," Zuckerberg said. "And it's hard to define where to draw the line. Would we really block ads for important political issues like climate change or women's empowerment?"

Like Twitter, political ads on Facebook only makes up a small part of the company's revenue. Zuckerberg said political ads will likely only account for less than 0.5% of Facebook's revenue next year. Facebook's stance on the issue isn't based on "inflammatory content to fuel our business" or on appeasing conservatives, he said.

Dorsey added that the power of internet advertising for politics "brings significant risks," because it can influence voting and affect millions of lives. Twitter can focus on addressing the root problem with internet advertising only if it doesn't accept money for it in the meantime.

Regulators must also consider long-term policies for dealing with political ads, Dorsey said.

Twitter's final policy will be unveiled Nov. 15 and enforced from Nov. 22. There will be exceptions such as voter registration ads.

Mixed reactions

Political ads have become a headache for social media companies.

Earlier this month, Facebook rejected a request from former Vice President Joe Biden's presidential campaign to pull Trump ads that contained false information. The ads implied that Biden had threatened to withhold money from Ukraine unless the country interrupted an investigation involving Biden's son. The scenario has been widely debunked. Fellow Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren later ran an ad with a deliberate falsehood to protest Facebook's policy.

Biden's campaign praised Twitter's policy change.

"We appreciate that Twitter recognizes that they should not permit disproven smears, like those from the Trump campaign, to appear in advertisements on their platform," Bill Russo, deputy communications director of Biden for President, said in an email. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, said social media companies shouldn't run political ads if they weren't prepared to conduct basic fact checking. "Technology -- and social media especially -- has a powerful responsibility in preserving the integrity of our elections," she tweeted. "Not allowing for paid disinformation is one of the most basic, ethical decisions a company can make."

Trump's campaign criticized Twitter for the move. Brad Parscale, manager of the Trump 2020 campaign, tweeted that it was a "very dumb decision" for Twitter to walk away from "hundreds of millions of dollars of potential revenue."

"This is yet another attempt to silence conservatives, since Twitter knows President Trump has the most sophisticated online program ever known," Parscale tweeted.

Other politicians argued that Twitter's decision to bar political ads might have unintended consequences.

Conservative British MP Damian Collins tweeted the problem on Twitter has been "big networks of fake bot accounts rather than legitimate advertisers."

"This move could make life easier for the peddlers of fake news," he said.

First published at 1:12 p.m. PT on Oct. 30.

Updated at 1:36 p.m.: Adds more information, background; Updated at 1:57 p.m.: Adds more information, statement from Twitter spokesperson; Updated at 2:02 p.m.: Adds statement from analyst; Updated at 2:09 p.m.: Adds statement from Biden campaign; Updated at 3:17 p.m.: Adds comments from Zuckerberg, AOC, Hillary Clinton and the Trump campaign; Updated at 3:27 p.m.: Adds comments from Change the Terms and MP Damian Collin; Updated at 4:19 p.m.: Adds comments from Muslim Advocates and Wyden. Updated at 5:49 p.m.: Reorganizes story.