Big Tech’s political ad bans are a big charade

Twitter and others swore off political ads before 2020, but their decisions may have cost more than just ad dollars.

Colourful overlapping silhouettes of people voting in USA elections

Questions remain about how apolitical political ad-banning policies really are.

Illustration: smartboy10/Getty images

Say ExxonMobil wanted to run an ad on Twitter about how natural gas is actually totally climate-friendly. The company could get certified as a “cause-based” advertiser, provide some basic details like its company ID and country of origin, and fire away.

But if Erik Polyak, managing director of the climate advocacy group 314 Action, wanted to run an ad debunking that very debunkable claim, he couldn’t. 314 Action is registered as a political action committee and, in late 2019, Twitter announced it would no longer take ads from PACs — or political candidates, parties or government officials, for that matter.

“We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” Jack Dorsey tweeted at the time. (Twitter spokesperson Elizabeth Busby shared a verbatim statement with Protocol.)

Political ads had become too susceptible to abuse, Dorsey wrote, presenting “entirely new challenges to civic discourse,” and he believed the company couldn’t credibly claim to be cleaning up its act while also taking money to push whatever misleading message political advertisers wanted.

Twitter wasn’t the only one reaching that conclusion. After facing intense scrutiny over the ways digital ad systems were abused during the 2016 election, some tech platforms — Spotify, LinkedIn, TikTok and Pinterest among them — decided that it might be easier to simply sit elections out and imposed various bans on political advertising. Only Spotify has opted to bring them back, albeit in a limited fashion.

But as the midterm elections loom, questions remain about how apolitical these policies really are and whether they’re actually reducing abuse or simply taking the spotlight off of the companies that imposed them. “They launched this policy that's really tilted the playing field,” Polyak said of Twitter. “Instead of getting serious about disinformation on the platform, they've just gravitated towards this one-size-fits-all policy that really favors big corporations and penalizes advocacy groups like us.”

“It’s performative,” added Tatenda Musapatike, CEO of the Voter Formation Project, a voter turnout nonprofit focused on underrepresented communities. Musapatike previously worked on political ads at Facebook. “[Platforms] have political messages on there, but they don’t want to open themselves up to the risk or the appearance of the risk,” she said. “They don’t want to end up like Facebook in 2017.”

It’s hard to measure the impact these political ad bans have had on elections, or on platforms, in part because none of the platforms has shared any research measuring their impact — that is, if any have done that research at all. Protocol asked Twitter, TikTok, LinkedIn and Pinterest if they had any data on the effect of the ad bans: Twitter, TikTok and Pinterest did not respond directly to the question, and LinkedIn said it didn't have data to share.

That’s a problem, said Matt Perault, a professor at UNC's School of Information and Library Science and a former director of Facebook’s public policy team. Tech platforms large and small made what Perault calls “historic interventions” in paid political speech before the 2020 race. “It might be that some form of ad restrictions are positive, and we want to keep them in place if they worked; or maybe they failed, and because they failed, we don't want to implement them in the midterms or in 2024,” Perault said. “We don’t know the answer to any of those questions.”

In the absence of data from the companies, Perault and his colleague Scott Babwah Brennen, head of Online Expression Policy at UNC’s Center on Technology Policy, went looking for answers of their own. In a paper published last year, they analyzed the effects of the temporary ban on new political ads that Facebook put in place immediately before and immediately following the 2020 election. They found that while the bans likely had minimal impact on curbing misinformation, they did seem to hurt smaller campaigns, since digital ads are cheaper than other mediums. The bans also appeared to hurt Democrats more than Republicans, since Democrats generally relied more on Facebook ads for small-dollar fundraising.

“It doesn't hurt Donald Trump. He has massive organic content, and he can spend money wherever he wants to spend it,” Perault said. “It hurts challengers who might not have name recognition, who are trying to figure out: For 100 bucks, where can they get a good return on their investment?”

The irony, of course, is that it was Democrats who primarily demonized digital political ads after 2016, warning of the dangers of “dark posts” and castigating tech giants for the way their ad systems had been misused by Russian operatives. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner introduced the Honest Ads Act, which would have required more disclosure and transparency around online political ads. Momentum behind that bill fizzled after its Republican co-sponsor, Sen. John McCain, died, but the increased public pressure did prompt Facebook, Google, Snap, Reddit and even, temporarily, Twitter to create ad archives of their own.

That was a clear win for transparency, but the increased scrutiny may have inadvertently driven some platforms away from political advertising altogether. These archives, after all, took substantial resources, and the new visibility has created unending bad press for platforms, especially Facebook. Ultimately, Brennen said, “Small companies just don't think it's really worth it.”

But the rules those platforms have since put in place forbidding political bans are imperfect at best. Take TikTok: The company banned political ads in 2019, but paying influencers to peddle political messages instead has become a widespread workaround, despite the company’s stated policy against it. Twitter’s prohibition on political ads, meanwhile, has effectively created a loophole for businesses while stymying advocacy groups, said Stephanie Grasmick, CEO of the Democratic marketing firm Rising Tide Interactive.

“Hotel chains and airlines say, ‘We’re rated the No. 1 employer. Our employees love us,’ and then the union that represents the workers can’t advertise at all because of how they’re organized,” Grasmick said. “If they’re going to have rules — and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having rules — then the rules should apply equally to everybody.”

The bans also haven’t stopped potential misinformation from spreading through online ads. They’ve just made those ads harder to find. Perault and Brennen have been tracking where political advertising has moved online in the wake of these bans and discovered that a lot of it is migrating to programmatic advertising platforms, which have few rules about what advertisers can say and almost no transparency systems in place. Buying ads this way can also drive up costs for campaigns, Brennen said, because navigating programmatic systems often takes a trained marketing consultant. That only further obscures the flow of campaign cash: When campaigns hire consultants to do their digital advertising, those consultants by and large aren’t required to publicly report where the money goes.

Even on Facebook, where it’s still possible to run political ads, the landscape for political advertisers looks a lot different — and a lot pricier — in 2022. That’s due to Apple privacy changes that have torpedoed every app’s ability to track users, as well as to Facebook’s own decision to prevent advertisers from targeting users based on “sensitive” categories, including their political beliefs. There are still ways to find relevant audiences, Musapatike said, but “the targeting is less efficient.”

All of this has made it increasingly expensive for smaller, less resourced political campaigns to advertise online. That, Perault said, is a “social cost” that tech platforms need to assess at least as much as they assessed the upside of banning political ads. But nearly three years after many of these companies made that decision, and with a contentious midterm election just months away, Perault said, our understanding of the effects of those bans is still woefully inadequate.

“Are we — going into the next momentous moment in the democratic governance of our nation — going to be in a better position to make informed decisions about what the right approaches are?” he said. “I think it's a travesty that we don't have that information.”

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