Political ads are headed for your Twitter feed

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Political ads are headed for your Twitter feed

I feel like there’s not enough talk about politics on Twitter — said no one ever. Well, Twitter users, get ready for even more. The company is set to lift its 2019 ban on political advertisements in the coming weeks, Twitter’s Safety account confirmed in a tweet.

It’s a change from the 2019 Twitter policy put into place globally under then-CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey, who stated that political reach “should be earned, not bought,” stating he hoped the policy would minimize deepfakes, misinformation and microtargeting.

But new Twitter CEO and self-described free speech absolutist Elon Musk, who acquired Twitter in October 2022, has been loosening restrictions on certain content, including the kind of content Dorsey moved to keep off the platform.

That makes the move to reintroduce political ads — and the potential for misinformation that goes along with them — not all that surprising and potentially detrimental, some experts say. Others say the platform is already in a such state of chaos, users won’t notice a few political ads here and there.

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One thing most experts can agree on: It’s not mainly about Musk’s free speech agenda. While Twitter has stated it made the change to “facilitate public conversation around important topics,” experts note the change is more likely about the financially strapped company pulling in much-needed funds.

An answer to the advertising blowback

Musk’s relaxed approached to content moderation — which also includes a reduction in the number of people monitoring misinformation — has caused major advertisers to pull back from spending money on Twitter. It’s been a huge change for the company that, prior to Musk’s takeover, got 90 percent of its revenue from advertisements, Politico reported.

Many experts agree that this current change in policy was primarily a financial move, including Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

“There are millions of dollars that flow through political ads,” said West, adding that the platform is financially broke and needs money so urgently that it might be willing to relax content moderation standards. He also emphasized how more political ads could mean more misinformation on Twitter — something the platform struggled with even before Musk took over.

“[Political ads are] a very lucrative revenue source for social media firms, but the problem comes in how people use that platform,” West said. “And we know that there is misinformation on so many different topics, elections, public health, climate change, so it definitely elevates the risks facing our society.”

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But experts dispute how noticeable this potential misinformation surge will be once political ads are let back onto the platform.

Misinformation on Twitter isn’t new

It’s likely that permitting political ads on Twitter will not make a significant difference in terms of breadth of misinformation on the platform, Bill Adair, founder of PolitiFact and a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, told Grid. That’s because, he said, that’s not Twitter’s largest problem. “Twitter’s big issue is that it’s in chaos,” he said. “I don’t think allowing political ads is going to make it that much worse.”

Adair also pointed out that, to his knowledge, no political advertisements on any major social platform can be fact-checked through a program. Political advertisements, he explained, have traditionally been a place for free speech. Since Musk’s arrival, there has been no cohesive policy on misinformation.

“You can’t combat a huge global problem like misinformation without a cohesive strategy,” Adair said.

The dangers of political ads

While Yotam Ophir, assistant professor of communications at the University of Buffalo, agrees that misinformation is not a new issue, he said the impact of political ads can be potentially detrimental.

“I’m assuming he is bringing back political ads to compensate for the regular advertisers that ran away,” Ophir said. “But the result is that he opens the platform up to exploitation and deception and online propaganda.”

The problem with political ads, he said, is that they can be microtargeted to specific populations, so they can easily be exploited by people trying to influence political elections — from both within the United States and by foreign actors.

The issue is made worse because in the United States there is little governmental regulation of misinformation.

“Social media companies are being treated not as media companies, but as technology companies,” Ophir said. This means that companies like Twitter are protected through legislation — such as Section 230 — from being responsible for third-party content. A person cannot sue Twitter over misinformation or conspiracy theories because of policies like Section 230, part of the Communications Decency Act, and other supporting legislation.

An October 2022 report from NewsGuard reviewed Meta’s (which owns both Facebook and Instagram) database of political ads and found that partisan organizations disguised themselves as local news outlets to influence public opinion before the 2022 midterm elections. According to NewsGuard: “These pseudo newsrooms have taken advantage of the Meta’s low costs, hypertargeting tools, and porous policies related to political ad spending to target voters in battleground states while underplaying or entirely hiding their partisan-driven agendas and financing.”


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Lorenzo Arvanitis, an analyst at NewsGuard and co-author of the October 2022 report, believes that as Twitter relaxes its ban on political ads, “these partisan groups may soon have another powerful ally.”

Misinformation sells

The potential financial success of these political ads for Twitter remains to be seen, but as a point of reference, dark money political ads thrived on Instagram and Facebook in advance of the 2022 midterm elections.

It’s true that Musk will likely benefit from political advertisements, making up for lost revenue from fewer advertisers, but he also benefits from the potential surge of misinformation too, Ophir said.

Put simply, people are willing to entertain misinformation. So much so, Ophir said, that on Twitter, misinformation spreads faster than information.

“The thing about misinformation that we do know is that it’s engaging,” Ophir said. “People engage with it, people look at it, people read it, people share it even when you disagree with it.”

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So, for Musk, an increase in misinformation means an increase of engagement on the platform. “It pays off in terms of increasing engagement on the platform right now,” he said.

Ophir does not think Musk has a long-term plan for the future of Twitter, and this latest policy change relaxing limits on political advertisements is just “one more erratic move to show who’s the boss and that [Musk] can do whatever he wants.”

Cause-based ads will also make a stronger return

Under this revised policy, Twitter will loosen restrictions on “cause-based ads” in the United States — paid content that, in Twitter’s words, are 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.” Think ads promoting action against climate change — ads with “publicly stated values, principles, and/or beliefs.”

And while these kinds of ads can mention government programs (with a certification process through Twitter) they aren’t supposed to get political — mentions of candidates, political parties and ballot measures are off the table, says the policy.

But there is a significant geographical component to the policy that lets U.S. cause-based ads skirt the “no politics” rule, the Verge reported.

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Advertisers whose cause-based ads geo-target from within the U.S. exclusively will be able to use politically charged terms — meaning the rules apply only to ads that use targeting in other countries.

Dorsey first implemented the 2019 restriction on Twitter globally, explaining that these ads can impact elections by influencing votes.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Khaya Himmelman
    Khaya Himmelman

    Reporter

    Khaya Himmelman is a reporter at Grid. A former misinformation reporter for the Dispatch, she is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and Barnard College. Khaya has appeared on CNN to discuss misinformation in the media.