Twitter’s new ban on political ads is a silent challenge to Facebook

Facebook is facing increasing blowback over its policy that allows politicians to lie in ads on its platform, and critics have been urging the company to stop running political ads. So far, the company hasn’t backed down. But on Wednesday, fellow social media company Twitter announced it will stop all political advertising on its platform worldwide.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made the announcement in a series of tweets on Wednesday afternoon. “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” Dorsey wrote.

In other words, politicians can still organically tweet but they can’t pay to promote those tweets as advertisements.

Dorsey laid out Twitter’s reasoning, explaining that political messages earn reach when people decide to follow or retweet an account. “Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money,” he wrote.

He warned that internet advertising’s power “brings significant risks to politics” — a dig at Facebook, which doesn’t fact-check ads from politicians.

“We’re well aware we’re a small part of a much larger political advertising ecosystem,” Dorsey concluded. “Some might argue our actions today could favor incumbents. But we have witnessed many social movements reach massive scale without any political advertising. I trust this will only grow.”

Twitter’s definition of a political ad will align with how it defines political content, a spokesman for the company told Recode.

This puts pressure on other social media companies to make a move

Twitter is a relatively small player in the online political advertising space, which is largely dominated by Facebook and Google. Nevertheless, its decision puts pressure on competitors that are already under heavy scrutiny over their policies. It’s probably not by accident that Twitter announced its decision at the same time Facebook announced its quarterly earnings.

Facebook specifically has been widely criticized for its policy of not fact-checking ads run by politicians. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has taken a hard line on his defense of Facebook’s approach, sticking by it in the face of criticism from reporters, lawmakers, and his own employees, who are all pressuring him to rethink his decision.

The potential ramifications of Facebook’s policies have been evidenced by Democratic efforts to test its limits. First, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) ran an ad falsely claiming Zuckerberg had endorsed President Donald Trump, then first-term Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) got Zuckerberg to admit at a House hearing that he would “probably” let her run ads saying Republicans supported the Green New Deal. And then, a progressive strategist named Adriel Hampton filed to run for California governor as part of a stunt campaign, saying the plan was to run fake ads. Facebook decided to clamp down on him, adding more confusion into the mix.

In a story I published earlier in the day on Wednesday, I took a broader look at the implications of Facebook’s policy, which set off a controversy when the company refused to take down a Trump ad making false claims about former Vice President Joe Biden:

But taking down the ad would have created two problems for Facebook. First, it would set a precedent that Facebook is responsible for policing every false political ad on its platform. That would be a challenging but not impossible task. The company has effectively addressed terrorist content and gotten better at combating election interference. It could undertake similar efforts on fake political ads.

The second and bigger complication: taking down the ad could also have caused just as much controversy as leaving it up. Trump and his supporters would likely have cried foul. Facebook and other social media companies are already dogged by unfounded accusations by Republicans that their algorithms contain anti-conservative bias, and they have done a lot of legwork to try to prove they’re not.

To be sure, none of this is to say that Twitter has resolved all criticisms and questions about the health of its platform, or even how it moderates political tweets that aren’t paid advertisements. Some people continue to call for Twitter to censor or take down Trump’s account when he tweets out particularly threatening or offensive content that seemingly violates the platform’s rules.

However, Twitter’s decision to end political ads is a PR win for Twitter, even if it doesn’t actually make that much of a difference in the world of fake political online ads. Beyond that, it’s a savvy move that puts more heat on Zuckerberg and Facebook — and a lot of people are watching.