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Which advertising is political? Twitter struggles with a definition


SAN FRANCISCO – Alzheimer’s Association, a healthcare advocacy group, recently spent $ 84,000 on advertising campaigns on Twitter. One campaign had one purpose: to convince people to ask Congress to invest more in medical research into the disease.

Now the nonprofit worries that this news will continue to spread. That’s because Twitter announced last month that it would soon ban all political ads from its platform – and depending on who you ask, pushing lawmakers to raise money for medical research could be considered a political concern.

The Alzheimer’s Association was so concerned that it reached out to Twitter this month to raise concerns about the ban on political advertising. “We’re not sure how this will affect us,” said Mike Lynch, a group spokesman. “A lot of what we do is advertising, so it really depends on how you define political advertising.”

The Alzheimer’s Association is one of many nonprofits and organizations that have put pressure on Twitter for their political advertising ban, due to begin next Friday. The problem is that campaign ads from candidates are clearly political, other messages addressing hot topics like abortion, school choices and climate change may or may not cross that line.

This has sparked a scramble within Twitter to define what constitutes a political ad. Twitter’s advertising managers held meetings with public relations and free speech groups in Washington to discuss the situation. And the company has fended off public criticism of the ban, including from Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who is running for president. Last week, Ms. Warren said Twitter’s new advertising policy would prevent climate activists from holding companies accountable.

On Friday, after weeks of discussion, Twitter released a formal definition of what it considers political advertising. According to the official policy, ads that discuss elections, candidates, parties and other openly political content are prohibited. For ads that address general concerns and are run by organizations rather than politicians or political candidates, Twitter said it would impose restrictions but not directly prohibit them.

Limitations included depriving advertisers of the ability to target specific audiences, a practice known as “micro-targeting”. The ads also can’t mention any specific laws, Twitter said.

“It’s a big change for us as a company, but we believe it will improve our service and our political promotion in the world,” said Vijaya Gadde, who leads Twitter’s legal, policy, trust and security departments. in a call on Friday to introduce the policy.

Twitter’s exposure of its political advertising policy did little to appease its critics, such as conservatives who said banning such advertising was an attempt to suppress right-wing voices.

“Whatever they come up with, we expect Twitter to continue censoring, blocking, or creating ‘bugs’ that unfairly silence President Trump and conservatives,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign.

Some super PACs and political groups said Twitter’s decision disrupted the political advertising strategy and budget they had already set for the 2020 election.

“Changing the rules halfway is really dangerous,” said Danielle Butterfield, the director of paid media for Priorities USA, one of the largest Democratic super-PACs. “A lot of companies need to rethink their strategy and figure out how to adapt, especially in the middle of the cycle.”

She said her group used ads on Twitter to report stories to local reporters in swing states about the economy under the Trump administration, an important part of their domestic strategy.

Twitter is in a delicate position as its CEO, Jack Dorsey, decided last month that the social media service will no longer host political ads. In a series of tweets on Oct. 30, Mr Dorsey said political ads were challenging civic discourse, adding that he believed the reach of political messages “should be earned, not bought”.

His statement contrasted with that of Twitter’s rival Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, said last month that he plans to allow political ads on the social network – even if they’re inaccurate or contain lies – because such ads are newsworthy and should remain for the sake of freedom of expression. Ms. Warren and others have pilloried Mr. Zuckerberg for his attitude, saying he runs a “disinformation machine for profit”.

However, Mr Dorsey was immediately lauded by politicians – including MP Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York – for speaking out against political advertising.

At the time, Mr. Dorsey defined political advertisements as those sponsored by candidates or discussed on political issues. He said that some ads, such as those promoting voter registration, are allowed as exceptions. Mr Dorsey, who has been traveling in Africa since then, was unavailable for comment on Friday.

His comments quickly caused an uproar among nonprofits, lobbyists and others who feared they could no longer post themed ads on Twitter because it was unclear whether their messages were viewed as political.

“Politics would tilt the playing field,” said Eric Pooley, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group for environmental protection. “Nonprofits need to be able to communicate with the public. That’s what we do. ”

The American Federation for Children, an advocacy group for school polls, said Mr. Dorsey’s announcement had created uncertainty and that it was wrongly being carried away by Twitter’s efforts to clean up its platform. Planned Parenthood partners added that they were already struggling to get ads approved on social media and were worried about a ban.

“Digital advertising is an inexpensive way for small nonprofits to reach their audiences. The question is, where are we going next? ”Said Emma Corbett, director of communications for Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts, which represents Planned Parenthood in New York State.

Twitter said it had discussions on the policy last week with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Affairs Council, a non-partisan organization that advises businesses on their lobbying and digital advocacy efforts.

Nick DeSarno, director of digital and political communications at the Council on Public Affairs, said Twitter is trying to split the difference between restricting politicians to placing ads while allowing advocacy organizations to further raise awareness on political issues.

“While Twitter’s advertising policy on potential new topics is more permissive than a total ban, it will nonetheless be a challenge for groups trying to use the platform to drive policy or legislative change,” he said.

Twitter’s restrictions on targeted advertising will prevent advertisers from sending political messages to residents of certain zip codes or cities; Instead, they can only broadcast their content at the state level. The company said it would also prevent advertisers from targeting their messages based on users’ political leanings or interests, such as “conservative”, “liberal” or “political elections”.

“We strongly believe that cause-based advertising has value and can help spark public debate on important issues,” said Del Harvey, vice president of trust and security for Twitter. “But we still don’t believe that it should be used with the primary aim of achieving political or judicial or legislative or regulatory outcomes.”

Nick Corasaniti contributed the coverage from New York.


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