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Twitter's political ads ban has exceptions

Issue ads will be allowed if they don't advocate for a candidate or legislation.

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Twitter has a new policy on political ads.

Graphic by Pixabay/Illustration by CNET

Twitter unveiled a new policy on Friday that bars advertisers from promoting political content, but the rules also include exceptions for hot-button issues such as immigration and climate change, raising questions about how effective the company will be in curbing the spread of misinformation. 

Debate about political ads has intensified ahead of the 2020 US elections. Twitter's move contrasts with that of Facebook, which argues that banning political ads would favor incumbents and whomever the media decides to cover. The company announced the policy changes late last month, but revealed more details about how they would work on Friday. 

"This is an entirely new terrain," said Vijaya Gadde, Twitter's legal, policy and trust and safety lead, in a press call. "We're going to have to build out a lot more detail, especially globally, and we've tried to make this policy as clear and straightforward as possible, but there's always going to be areas that are subjective."

Under the new policy, which will take effect on Nov. 22, candidates, political parties and elected or appointed government officials won't be allowed to run ads on Twitter. In the US, political action committees and social welfare groups or 501(c)(4)s won't be able to advertise as well. 

Other users are barred from running ads that mention "a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive, or judicial outcome." Twitter will still allow ads about issues such as climate change, women's empowerment and immigration if they don't reference a politician, bill or anything else the company considers political content. The company thinks these ads can still fuel important public discussions. 

Users running ads that "educate, raise awareness, and/or call for people to take action in connection with civic engagement, economic growth, environmental stewardship, or social equity causes" will have to be certified by the company. Ad targeting would be limited to certain locations, keywords and interests. News outlets will be able to run political ads as long as they don't include advocacy. 

Del Harvey, Twitter's vice president of trust and safety, acknowledged there isn't any guarantee that this new policy will stop all misinformation in ads.

Harvey was asked if a charity could run an ad saying that climate change was happening or not happening as long as the group isn't telling people to act in a certain way. A charity that wants to promote an ad that is meant to raise awareness on a topic would be able to under the new rules but their ad targeting would be restricted, she said in response. 

The public nature of Twitter also means that users can get called out if they say something that's false. "We have very much tried to structure this in a way where anyone, whether they're running an ad or not, can be held accountable for what they say," Harvey said. 

Twitter will use a mix of technology and human reviewers to enforce the rules, but it's also expecting to make mistakes. A company spokesperson said that advertisers will have a way to appeal a decision. 

Some civil rights groups said Twitter needs to do more to combat hate speech and racism on its platform and that the new policy fails to address those concerns. 

"Politicians, public figures, and political leaders regularly weaponize Twitter, and they don't need to pay for ads to do it," Jessica J. González, co-founder of Change the Terms -- a coalition of more than 55 civil rights groups -- said in a statement. "A hateful tweet can go viral and incite real violence that threatens lives."

Responding to concerns about election interference, social media companies have rolled out new rules and policies around political ads but these efforts haven't gone off without a hitch. Facebook, for example, started requiring users posting ads about politics or "issues of national importance" to verify their identity and location. Some businesses complained that their ads were incorrectly flagged as political, while news outlets found loopholes in the system. 

Jennifer Grygiel, assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University, said new policies by social media companies include "weak definitions" and are difficult to manage. Without government regulation, they said, it's unclear whether or not these new efforts are working. 

"I don't believe that any of the social media platforms will implement any of these policies in a way that will be effective. We need regulation in this space, not Twitter setting its own definition for political content. Ultimately, these corporations will serve their own business interests," Grygiel said.

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Twitter first announced that it would stop selling political ads on Oct. 30, on the same day that Facebook released its third-quarter earnings. Facebook has come under fire for a policy that allows politicians to lie in political ads because it considers that direct speech, prompting calls for a ban on political ads. Facebook, Google-owned YouTube and Twitter allowed President Donald Trump's reelection campaign to run a political ad that contained misinformation about presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted about the new policy, arguing that a political message should be "earned not bought" by getting people to follow an account or share a tweet. He said at the time that the ban would include issue ads. The company defined issue ads at that point as ads that refer to a candidate or election or ads about climate change, health care, immigration and other "legislative issues of national importance." 

Twitter's move to ban political ads garnered both praise and criticism from politicians, advocacy groups and analysts. Trump's reelection campaign saw the decision to bar political ads as a move to censor conservative speech. Last week, presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, raised concerns that barring political ads would harm organizations fighting climate change while allowing fossil fuel companies to spread misinformation and defend themselves in ads. 

Businesses and other for-profit organizations will be allowed to run ads about issues as long as they're tied to the organization's public values and they don't aim to influence "political, judicial, legislative, or regulatory outcomes," according to the policy. 

Warren and Trump's reelection campaign didn't respond to a request for comment. Bill Russo, a spokesman for Biden's campaign, praised Twitter for its efforts but pointed out the battle isn't over. 

"A step in the right direction is not the end of the line," Russo said. "Social media companies still have more work to do in order to ensure that their platforms are not rife with disinformation that corrodes the American people's faith in their institutions and even their democracy."

Originally published Nov. 15, 10:31 am. PT.
Update, 12:23 p.m.: Includes reaction from Change the Terms.
Update, 1:47 p.m.: Includes remarks from Grygiel and more background.
Update, 1:58 p.m.: Includes comment from Biden campaign.