Twitter sets out exemptions to political ad ban

Twitter will continue to allow campaign groups to advertise on political issues but will bar them from targeting small sections of users, the social media platform has announced, as it refines the rules around its controversial ban on political advertising.

The company set out definitions and exemptions for its new policy on Friday, two weeks after announcing the ban in the hope of allaying concerns its platform will be used to spread misinformation in the run-up to next year’s US presidential election.

Twitter said candidates and parties would be banned outright from advertising on its platforms, while others would be allowed to focus on certain political issues as long as they were not connected with specific legislation or elections.

And in a move which is likely to increase pressure on Facebook to follow suit, it added that campaign groups would not be allowed to target users by postcode or political preferences.

Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s head of legal and policy, said: “It’s a big change for us as a company, but one we believe is going to make our service and hopefully, political outcomes — and the world — better.”

While misinformation and manipulative content on Twitter is not confined to advertising, the political ad ban is part of a wider effort to clean up the platform. In June, the company announced that it had bought Fabula AI, a London-based start-up that uses machine learning to detect fake news.

It has also stepped up its collaboration with other social platforms such as Facebook to take down co-ordinated manipulation campaigns, which have so far typically originated in Russia and Iran.

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But concerns still remain about the proliferation of bots, trolls and fake accounts on the platform.

Jack Dorsey, Twitter chief executive, decided to ban political advertisements, following complaints that social media sites — and in particular Facebook — were allowing politicians to make false claims.

Some politicians welcomed Mr Dorsey’s tough stance, but others warned that it risked banning advocacy groups from highlighting certain political issues.

Elizabeth Warren, one of the frontrunners to be the Democratic presidential candidate, attacked Facebook for its more liberal policy, but also criticised Twitter for its blanket ban. Ms Warren warned Twitter’s approach could allow oil companies such as ExxonMobil to buy advertisements, but not groups seeking to highlight climate change.

Twitter’s detailed policy seeks to tackle some of those problems, while also creating a more complicated set of rules which executives admitted could be difficult to police.

The company said that for-profit organisations running cause-based adverts should “not have the primary goal of driving political, judicial, legislative, or regulatory outcomes”, and their advertisements should be tied to their publicly stated values.

“We firmly believe it is better for us to start trying, and give people a chance to tell us where we’re getting it wrong, than to wait,” said Ms Gadde.

Twitter’s move is likely to renew pressure on Facebook to modify its policy of allowing almost all political advertising, including ads making provably false claims.

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Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook chief executive, has said he is considering changing the rules so that political advertisers can no longer “micro-target” voters, after being warned that allowing misleading content only to appear on the Facebook pages of certain small groups makes it more difficult for others to debunk it.

The possibility of changes across the social media market are causing a headache for political campaigners both in the UK, which is in the middle of a general election campaign, and in the US, where the presidential election is a year away.

“All the major platforms are talking about major changes to their political advertising policies not long before an election,” said Daniel Kreiss, associate professor of communications at the University of North Carolina. “That is bad for practitioners generally, but I suspect it will be good for team Trump, which has been running a general election campaign already for the last year.”

Twitter said its new political ad policy was unlikely to impact earnings and it has not updated its guidance for this year and next. It said that political ad spending on its platform for the 2018 US midterm elections was less than $3m; the company made more than $3bn in overall revenues last year.



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