After Facebook comes under fire, Twitter's CEO announces ban on political ads

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

Twitter announced on Wednesday that it would no longer allow political ads on its service, in an implicit response to Facebook’s policy of allowing political ads even if they contain false information.

“We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally,” wrote CEO Jack Dorsey in a series of messages Wednesday. “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought. Why? A few reasons. A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money.

“While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions. Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.”

Dorsey said a few exceptions would be made, citing ads in support of voter registration, and that enforcement of the new policy would begin on Nov. 22.

Facebook announced a change in its own policy on Sept. 24: It would not fact-check or remove content by politicians even if the posts violate the company’s rules. Nick Clegg, the company’s vice president of global affairs and communications, wrote, “It is not our role to intervene when politicians speak,” adding that would be done only if a politician’s speech endangers people. Facebook’s employees have posted op-eds arguing for the importance of free speech on their platform.

Dorsey’s tweets announcing the new Twitter policy contained an implied rebuke of Zuckerberg’s stance, which came under withering criticism in a House Financial Services Committee hearing last week.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP [2], Getty Images)

“For instance, it’s not credible for us to say, ‘We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad…well...they can say whatever they want!’” wrote Dorsey, adding a wink emoji.

“This isn’t about free expression,” Dorsey wrote. “This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle. It’s worth stepping back in order to address.”

Brad Parscale, President Trump’s reelection campaign manager, called the move by Twitter “yet another attempt to silence conservatives.”

In defense of the Facebook policy, Campbell Brown, the head of news partnerships at the company and a former television news journalist, wrote in a post on the social network Wednesday: “I strongly believe it should be the role of the press to dissect the truth or lies found in political ads — not engineers at a tech company.” The policy has faced internal pushback from hundreds of Facebook employees who signed a letter to Zuckerberg asking him to reconsider the policy.

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sean Casten, D-Ill., were among the legislators who criticized Zuckerberg over the policy.

“Could I run ads targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal?” asked Ocasio-Cortez. “If you’re not fact-checking political advertisements, I’m just trying to understand the bounds here, what’s fair game?”

“I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head,” said Zuckerberg. “I think probably.”

“Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements?”

“Well, Congresswoman, I think lying is bad,” said Zuckerberg. “And I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie, that would be bad.” But he said it wasn’t Facebook’s role “to prevent your constituents or people in an election from seeing that you had lied.”

“So you won’t take down lies, or you will take down lies?” asked Ocasio-Cortez. “I think that’s a pretty simple yes or no.”

“In a democracy, I believe that people should be able to see for themselves what politicians that they may or may not vote for are saying and judge their character for themselves,” said Zuckerberg.

Under questioning from Casten, the Facebook CEO would not commit to removing hate speech if it came from a candidate running for office. Casten cited a former member of the American Nazi Party who ran for Congress and won a Republican primary in 2018.

“I’m asking the question whether you can spread hate speech if you’re an elected official or trying to be, but you would not be allowed to if you were not in that capacity,” said Casten.

“Congressman, I think that depends on a bunch of specifics that I’m not familiar with this case and can’t answer to,” Zuckerberg said.

“Well, that’s rather shocking,” said Casten. “I don’t think that’s a hard question.”

This week Facebook removed false ads submitted by Adriel Hampton, an activist who officially registered to run for governor of California just to test the social network’s ad system. Facebook said it removed the ads because Hampton had explicitly said he was running to circumvent its policy.

On Oct. 9, Facebook said it wasn’t removing an ad from the Trump campaign that contained lies about former Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine. On Sept. 19, Zuckerberg and Trump had a surprise meeting at the White House, which the president referred to as “nice.”

Zuckerberg has also been criticized for his meetings with far-right leaders, and while the Facebook founder said he meets with people across the political spectrum, when the Intercept inquired of a number of leftist outlets and journalists if they had met with Zuckerberg, it couldn’t find one.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a leading critic of Facebook, posted a deliberately false ad on the social network earlier this month to prove the dangers of the current system.

“Breaking news: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election,” reads the ad. “You’re probably shocked, and you might be thinking, ‘how could this possibly be true?’ Well it’s not. (Sorry.) But what Zuckerberg *has* done is given Trump free rein to lie on his platform — and then to pay Facebook gobs of money to push out their lies to American voters.”

Zuckerberg called a potential Warren administration an existential threat to his company during a July meeting, the audio of which was published by the Verge earlier this month. In March, the company removed policy-oriented paid ads by the Warren campaign that called for breaking up monopoly tech companies, then reversed itself after criticism. The company had pledged that it would work to fight disinformation on its site by sharing huge amounts of data with the public to allow researchers to flag questionable posts. But reconciling that goal with its privacy policy has proved difficult, and the company is behind schedule on the project.

“This is the right thing to do for democracy in America and all over the world,” wrote Hillary Clinton, who had also been critical of the Facebook policy, in a retweet of Dorsey’s announcement. “What say you, @facebook?”

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