Many predicted that Twitter’s ban on political ads will change social media marketing. We check on how the ban is faring in 2020. 

Twitter’s outright ban on political ads generated incredible buzz when it went into effect on November 22nd of last year. Four months on, we take a look at the meaning of the ban and its impact on social media marketing. 

Why the Ban on Political Ads? 

On October 30th, 2019, CEO Jack Dorsey announced  in a Twitter thread that the company will ban political advertising. Dorsey explains: “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.” 

Dorsey declared that “a political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet,” but that “paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people.” 

Twitter’s decision arrived amidst widespread anxiety about the role of social media advertising in the upcoming 2020 presidential election. While Dorsey appeared to be taking a moral stand, he also set Twitter the difficult task of enforcing unprecedented regulations with far reaching repercussions. 

As with any policy change, there are likely to be winners and losers. For digital marketers, the choice to implement an outright ban on political ads raised two pressing questions : If optimized and targeted “political messages” are banned, then what qualifies as a “political message”? If Twitter is putting resources into regulating promotional material, who else will follow? 

The Meaning of the Ban 

Following Dorsey’s announcement, Twitter offered a more comprehensive account of the ban in its Political Content Policy. The platform banned ads that reference “a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive, or judicial outcome.” It also prohibited ads that solicit financial support or appeal for votes, and ads that can be traced to appointed or elected government officials, political parties, or candidates. 

Immediately following the announcement, critics fell into two camps. Supporters of Twitter’s ban argued that it was an important first step to preventing election tampering and regulating the increasingly prominent role of social media in politics. But skeptics argued that any arbitration will privilege certain political perspectives over others. Others, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, worried that by drawing a contentious line between “commercial” and “political” speech, Twitter is making more room for corporate messaging by excluding activists. 

Twitter itself made relatively little off of political ads prior to the ban (according to the company, it only made 3 million dollars in revenue from political ads during the 2018 midterm elections). The ban did not have immediate financial repercussions on its bottom line. 

The ban did, however, pressure Twitter’s main rival Facebook to regulate political advertising. Facebook is expected to sell 400 million dollars in political advertising in 2020, and Twitter’s announcement was made just a few days before Facebook was set to release its latest quarterly earnings report. 

Is the Ban Enforceable? 

Immediately following the announcement, Shannon C. McGregor declared in The Guardian, “Twitter’s ban on political ads is unnecessarily severe and simplistic, disadvantages challengers, and is likely unenforceable.” 

In the wake of the Bloomberg campaign, it seems like McGregor may have had a point. If explicit political ads are banned, then to what extent does the policy encourage illicit sponsored memes and paid posts masquerading as organic opinions?  

To Twitter’s credit, they have taken some media criticisms seriously. Twitter announced that it permits some cause-based advertising. However, this policy gives some leeway to activists by allowing select advertisers to release “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.” All ads will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. 

Either way, the ban —and the surrounding controversy— appears to have paid off for the social media giant. Twitter announced quarterly revenues of over $1 billion for the first time, and many have praised Twitter’s decision to monitor content as a step in the right direction for the health of the company. 

What Comes Next

The real question will be whether Twitter can sift through deep fakes, bots, and influencers with undeclared affiliations with political campaigns. After all, Twitter can crackdown on content, but it will struggle to follow the money outside its own platform. 

Regardless of how Twitter responds to Bloomberg’s run, the company’s ban on political speech and the increasing pressure to regulate sponsored content will impact many companies that use, or are looking to use, social media to market their products. Social media regulations appear to change with alarming regularity, and many executives are already uncertain about what their companies can or should do to adapt their social media strategies. What constitutes a legitimate versus an illegitimate sponsorship? How political is too political? 

For companies concerned about policy changes across social media platforms, L&T is here to help. We closely follow the evolving ethical and regulatory landscape of social media marketing, and we draw upon our extensive expertise to help you manage your message.