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Twitter's Ban On Political Advertising Could Have Biggest Effects On Small Candidates

Illustration showing the bird Twitter logo flying around a voting booth.
Renee Bright
Twitter announced last week that it will no longer allow political advertising on its platform.

Ballots for some 2019 elections are still being counted, and the 2020 races are heating up with the Iowa caucuses just three months away. More than ever, people are learning about candidates and issues through social media. 

Facebook has come under fire for its treatment of political advertising. Meanwhile, Twitter announced last week it will not allow any political advertising — from candidates or from organizations. 

To make sense of Twitter’s move, KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor at the University of Utah who studies political communication and social media. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: How powerful is political advertising on social media?

Shannon McGregor: I think it can be quite powerful. One of the reasons is because it's so much cheaper as compared to a television ad or a print ad in a newspaper, so it allows politicians to buy lots more ads at a much lower cost.

CB: Why has Twitter taken a different route from Facebook? Facebook has basically said “We will have political ads even if we know parts of them are not true.”

SM: I think Twitter took a different position because they could. 

For Facebook and Twitter and Google, political advertising makes up a super small portion of their overall advertising revenue. And because Twitter is a much smaller platform in comparison to Facebook, that's an even smaller percentage. According to their own reporting, they made less than $3 million on political ads in the 2018 cycle here in the U.S. It's a pretty small slice of their pie.

It's not going to be that simple. Twitter will still be in a position of deciding what's political and what's not political.

It also allows them to have a PR victory. They were able to back Facebook into a moral corner saying “Oh, look — you guys have gone to this one extreme. We think political ads are bad. We're not going to have them at all.” 

But it's not going to be that simple. Twitter will still be in a position of deciding what's political and what's not political. And so even though they're trying to opt out of arbitrating political truth, they're not really going to be.

CB: We have these two examples of very extreme stances right now between Facebook and Twitter — sort of the-all-or-nothing approach. Is there anything between those two stances? What could that look like?

SM: There's a whole world of options between those two extremes. 

I don't think people's concerns about political advertising are misguided. It can be super targeted. We see misinformation in them. But the way to get around that is not necessarily to say “no political ads” or “anything goes in political ads.” 

It's really less about the content and more about the types of targeting. If the ways in which people could be targeted on some of these platforms was regulated, then we wouldn't be as concerned — maybe — about the types of messages that they're getting. 

A policy that makes sense in the middle would have to have some regulation around what types of attributes we can be targeted on these different platforms. 

CB: Where should that regulation come from? Is that something that comes from the government or from tech companies themselves? 

SM: So far we've learned that tech companies are not eager to be regulated, but are very bad at regulating themselves. I do think it should come from the government. 

We have an existing framework for this. Political ads are regulated in television spaces, for example. And oddly, this is something that we've seen some bipartisan support on both the right and the left hand from different angles. They have problems with the way tech companies are handling political advertising.

I think this is one of the most troubling parts of this political ad banned by Twitter: it's likely to hurt challengers, newcomers, and people down ballot in local races.

CB: What about smaller, local political organizations that we have here in Utah? Will this new policy by Twitter be limiting to them?

SM: Yes. And in fact, I think this is one of the most troubling parts of this political ad banned by Twitter: it's likely to hurt challengers, newcomers, and people down ballot in local races. That's who really needs to be able to buy these low-cost, affordable ads on different social media platforms. 

It's not as likely to have a huge impact on Twitter as compared to, say, if Facebook adopted a policy like this. But on Twitter, campaigns are trying to get their name out. Candidates that are not well-known in local races use things like this to try and get their name out, so it's likely to have a disproportionate impact on challengers and people at state and local level races.

CB: What about for the public? Is this kind of a policy limiting in any way to them?

SM: On the one hand, it limits access to information to the public. There's a certain amount of the public that's on Twitter now — they're less likely to get that information. 

When Twitter announced this, the Trump campaign announced a statement decrying it, saying that this was limiting their speech. But Trump is the last person who needs Twitter ads. Every time he tweets tens of millions of people see it. It gets covered by the news. 

But it's when local politicians in down-ballot races tweet that it is likely to get picked up by local news outlets, and then that exposes it to even more people. By taking that away from people, by limiting candidates and politicians ability to promote some of those tweets to try and break through into the news cycle, it is going to limit the amount of news coverage that those candidates and politicians are likely to get.

CB: Do you see any potential loopholes in a policy like this where politicians could still, in a way, advertise on Twitter?

SM: Absolutely. And that's the thing, by banning political ads altogether it pushes this type of activity into gray areas, into outside actors. 

For example, say there's a local politician and now she can no longer pay to promote her tweets. Maybe her campaign is about more access to local parks, so she can't pay to advertise her tweets, but maybe a neighborhood association can tweet about how great their local park is. Saying “we need to expand access to local parks.” We can see some of these side ways that these sort of issues are still going to be making their way in this area.

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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