Tip Sheets

By banning political ads, Twitter admits unique threat of social media

Media Contact

Gillian Smith

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced Wednesday the company will stop accepting political ads starting Nov. 22, a decision that comes amid intense scrutiny of social media companies’ handling of such ads.

Drew Margolin

Associate Professor

Drew Margolin, assistant professor of communication at Cornell University, studies the way social networks shape communities and discourse. He says the decision could create a potential shift in norms for accepting political ads.

“Of course, it's difficult to assess the likely impact of the policy without seeing the details. That said, this policy represents an important acknowledgment of the realities of the current social media ecosystem. Powerful interests have always had an incentive to promote political misinformation and have purchased access to large audiences through political ads. What's different with social media is that content can be injected at a vastly larger number of points of entry. CNN can vet all of the political ads that might be shown on its network; Twitter and Facebook cannot easily do so. They are thus an attractive target.  

“This policy acknowledges that vetting is not realistic and is potentially unfair. It also reduces Twitter's ability to profit from these behaviors. Also, in explicitly rejecting the rationale of Citizens United, it creates the potential for a shift in norms of accepting political ads. It may not be illegal for organizations to pay for political speech, but it does not have to be acceptable for others, such as media, to accept money to let others speak through them.”

J. Nathan Matias

Professor of Communication

J. Nathan Matias, assistant professor of communication at Cornell University, studies digital governance with a focus on how technology shapes citizens behavior and public interest.  

“The significance of this decision will depend on Twitter's ability to enforce this rule - how will they decide what's political? It might seem like Twitter is deciding not to draw lines. In reality, they are just drawing a wider line.

“Companies make mistakes all the time about what’s political, as I and my colleagues found in our audit of Facebook and Google's political ad policies last year. It's very hard to define ‘political’ things from non-political discourse. If their policies are too loose or their enforcement too clumsy, Twitter could do real damage to public health, the uptake of government services, and civic life. 

“While people will draw a comparison to Facebook, but it's important to remember that campaigns spend far, far less on Twitter than Facebook, so the overall impact on any elections will be smaller.

“Twitter is still important to civic discourse, so campaigners, ad agencies, and manipulators will find other ways to influence people. We will probably see more bots, organized tweeting campaigns, and hybrid human-software coordination on Twitter, especially if organizers think they can influence the company's algorithms.”

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