Platforms Are Split Over If and How to Handle Political Ads

Last fall, a full year before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, social media were already debating whether they should take political ad dollars.

The platforms into two groups: those that have banned political ads from their channels, such as Twitter, and those that allow political ads with restrictions, such as Facebook. If a platform does allow political ads, each platform’s policy varies on whether they are fact-checked and how closely political advertisers can target users (aka voters).

Pinterest, LinkedIn and advertising newcomer TikTok ban the practice, with the latter’s vp of global business solutions, Blake Chandlee, saying in a blog post that it didn’t fit the “platform experience.”

Facebook, Snap and Reddit allow political ads, but the latter two have imposed restrictions. Snap has human-reviewed fact-checking for political ads, and Reddit doesn’t allow “deceptive, untrue or misleading” political ads.

Before its Friday announcement that it would ban political ads, Google had been screening for false claims that could “significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process.” Prior to that, Google had announced an approach to limit audience targeting to age, gender and location by postal code.

Facebook does not fact-check political ads or limit targeting, despite pressure from regulators and civil rights groups. Additionally, 1,100 advertisers boycotted its main platform and Instagram this July, citing Facebook’s failure to confront hate speech and misinformation.

However, Facebook has taken some steps to address these issues. It recently allowed users to opt-out of all political ads and clarified that it will reject ads prematurely claiming victory after the election. The company also announced that it would stop running new political ads a week before Election Day. Critics, however, said this could hurt get-out-the-vote efforts before the election and could create chaos around election results when the ban lifts.

Facebook declined to comment, but pointed to past statements on the matter: “People should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all, and that what they say should be scrutinized and debated in public,” Facebook’s Rob Leathern, director of product management, wrote last year, adding that Facebook regularly bans ads that violate its community standards.

But some believe that not accepting political ads, like what Twitter is doing, raises issues. For instance, such a policy favors incumbent candidates on the platform as well as those who use Twitter more, said Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor and senior researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Will Ritter, co-founder of the conservative ad agency Poolhouse, noted that Twitter’s decision hurts local and lesser-known candidates more. Ritter said users can get away with a lot on Twitter, but “god forbid you’re running for mayor” and want to reach new voters via an ad.

McGregor agreed, saying that incumbents like Trump, who has a large number of followers, don’t “need to pay for ads to boost [their] reach, whereas challengers do, especially in down-ballot races.” She added that one reason they turn to social media for advertising is because they are “more affordable and more targeted” than TV buys.

Twitter declined to comment for this story, but pointed to company CEO Jack Dorsey’s original announcement that addressed the incumbency argument. “Some might argue our actions today could favor incumbents,” Dorsey wrote. “But we have witnessed many social movements reach massive scale without any political advertising.”

Despite his critique, Ritter notes races aren’t won and lost on Twitter, saying, “People on Twitter usually have their minds made up.”

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