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Facebook and Twitter shouldn’t have power to regulate political ads



  • Shortly after Facebook announced that it stopped fact-checking political ads, Twitter decided that it will ban political ads entirely. 
  • Both policies, particularly Facebook’s, have sparked broad controversy and will have far-reaching impacts on future campaigns and elections.
  • But tech companies wouldn’t be in this tenuous position if we had an effective Federal Election Commission (FEC) — the agency charged with regulating how money is raised and spent in elections. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Twitter and Facebook have made headlines in recent weeks with their newly-announced policies concerning political advertising on their platforms.

Shortly after Facebook announced it isn’t fact-checking political ads, Twitter decided last week that it will ban political ads entirely. 

Both policies, particularly Facebook’s, will have far-reaching impacts on future campaigns and elections. Campaigns alone are expected to spend more than $2.5 billion on digital ads by November 2020. Republicans and Democrats are generally on opposite sides of the issue: While many on left prefer that tech companies more closely regulate or ban political ads, many on the right are pushing for full freedom for campaigns and political groups to advertise what they wish. 

As part of its election interference in the 2016 cycle, the Russian government weaponized social media — buying ads and creating bots, among other mechanisms — to promote President Donald Trump’s candidacy and conservative causes, while undermining Hillary Clinton and the left. 

Tech companies wouldn’t be in the position of creating policy to counteract this abuse if we had an effective Federal Election Commission (FEC) — the agency charged with regulating how money is raised and spent in elections. 

The FEC has been in paralysis since its vice chairman resigned in August. With only three of its six commissioner positions filled, it can’t fulfill virtually any of its responsibilities, including simply calling meetings.

Twitter’s ban also affects issue advocacy groups, which includes a range of entities from Planned Parenthood on the left to the National Rifle Association on the right. Ads that “refer to an election or a clearly identified candidate” or those “that advocate for legislative issues of national importance” will also be banned, according to Twitter’s August 2018 definition of issue ads. The company is releasing its full policy on November 15th. 

Bawaddden Sayed, spokesperson for the progressive campaign-finance reform group End Citizens United, said Twitter’s ban makes it harder for the group to reach a younger, more diverse audience. The solution, he says, is industry-wide regulation.

“The problem is that companies shouldn’t be self-regulating. And the solution isn’t to ban political ads or allow candidates to put money behind lies,” Bawadden told Insider. “The answer is a combination of clear-cut rules and enforcement mechanisms that will end the Wild West era of digital advertising.”

Ocasio-Cortez Zuckerberg

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questions Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Amanda Litman, the director of the progressive group Run for Something, said her organization spends about 80% of its advertising budget on Facebook. It’s spending over $100,000 on Facebook ads for a campaign to recruit candidates to run for local office in Texas. Litman is concerned by the fact that the digital advertising marketplace goes almost entirely unregulated.

“In an ideal situation, the FEC would be a functioning body that could issue some kind of regulations on what you can and can’t say,” she told Insider, adding that she agrees with Twitter that if companies “can’t fact-check or responsibly moderate the content, you shouldn’t do it at all.” 

A host of bills, including the Honest Ads Act and the DISCLOSE Act, have been proposed by congressional Democrats, but won’t pass under a Republican-controlled Senate. And some progressive First Amendment advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have joined conservatives in criticizing some aspects of the various bills.

Experts say the ban is a smart move on Twitter’s part. The change won’t cost the company very much — it made less than $3 million on political ads in 2018 — and it saves it a lot of future trouble. In addition, political groups and campaigns across the spectrum advertise much more on Facebook and Google than they do on Twitter.

A host of progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups praised Twitter’s move, particularly in light of Facebook’s opposite action.  

“This is a good call. Technology — and social media especially — has a powerful responsibility in preserving the integrity of our elections,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat. “Not allowing for paid disinformation is one of the most basic, ethical decisions a company can make.”

Many Republicans — a good number of whom have accused social media companies of censoring their speech — have praised Facebook’s hands-off ad policy and criticized Twitter’s move. 

During the 2016 election, some former Facebook employees revealed that the company regularly suppressed news and “trending” topics on conservative issues. Influential right-wing personalities Diamond and Silk were designated as “unsafe” users by Facebook last year. The company later said the move was made in error. 

“What constitutes an ‘issue ad’ is quite subjective, and conservatives are right to be skeptical that this new policy will be implemented fairly, especially in light of the fact that Twitter has already stated that they will make exceptions,” Noah Weinrich, a spokesperson for the conservative Heritage Foundation, told Insider. 

Weinrich argued that fact-checkers either have an anti-conservative bias or that much political content is simply too “tricky” to fact-check. 

Trump’s campaign condemned Twitter’s ad ban as “yet another attempt to silence conservatives.” 


Organic content trumps ads

While political advertising, particularly on Facebook, is hugely important to politicians and advocacy groups, organic posts are vastly more influential than paid content online. And the politicized fight over how tech companies should regulate these messages — including the president’s social media posts — rages on. 

Many progressives believe Twitter should play a more active role in limiting the speech of users when they make threats or otherwise endangers others. Meanwhile, a good number of conservatives argue that the ban on political ads won’t fix what they consider to be Twitter’s political bias against them. 

In 2017, Twitter banned ads from Live Action, a major anti-abortion group, because they contained “inflammatory or provocative content which is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction” or was disturbing, shocking, or offensive. 

Live Action maintains that Twitter has attempted to suppress its organic content in addition to its advertising. 

“It would be a step towards leveling the playing field if Twitter finally bans ads from pro-abortion groups as well, but their bias still affects what is trending and what shows up in users’ Twitter feeds,” Lila Rose, the group’s president, told Insider in a statement. “Companies like Twitter benefit from free speech in America, they should make more of an effort to set aside their pro-abortion and leftist bias when it comes to decisions about their platform.”

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