The fight over campaign advertising regulation

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Twitter’s new policy and regulations on political campaign advertising have sparked a debate over the boundaries of regulation. The policy applies specifically to Twitter’s paid advertising products and “globally prohibits the promotion of political content.” Political content, in this case, includes content that references a candidate, political party, or elected or appointed government official, according to Twitter’s advertising policy page. The platform has started to seek out any appeals for votes, financial support, or advocacy on behalf of any campaign or political issue being spread by a candidate, political party, government official, PAC, Super PAC, or 501(c)(4). The aim behind this is twofold: first, it is expected to level the playing field between lesser and more known candidates by eliminating the ability to pay for reach. Second, it aims to prevent campaigns from disseminating false information.

On the other end of the regulatory spectrum is Facebook, whose relative indifference to questionable political ad content was put on display when CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified on the Hill in October. During the hearing, Zuckerberg doubled down on the company’s stance that it is not Facebook’s mission to police campaign ads. Specifically, Zuckerberg stated that political speech is some of the most scrutinized speech already in the worldand that he believes Facebook should not serve as a fact checker for voters. The benefit of this approach, according to Zuckerberg, is that it gives voters a full and unedited view of what politicians are saying. Implicit in this view is that the responsibility to accept or reject the veracity of political ads falls squarely on the user instead of the platform.

Zuckerberg’s stance is a continuation of Facebook’s long-held views on policing political content. Since the 2016 election, Zuckerberg has assured both Congress and Facebook users that filtering the platform for accuracy would be a violation of free speech for campaigns, PACs, and candidates. To critics of Twitter’s new policy, Facebook’s stance seems to be a reasonable position; a private company acting as the gatekeeper of social media content could seem like a corporation wielding unconstitutional power over political discourse. Despite that, given Facebook’s past with false information in the 2016 election, it becomes easier to accept some need for responsibility on the platform’s part to confirm the veracity of content that could be connected to the outcome of a national election.

Twitter, conversely, has placed itself very clearly on the side of accuracy—even at the expense of profit. The company has argued that politicians hoping to receive attention on social media should do so through non-promoted posts on their own accounts, and that their “political message reach should be earned, not bought.”

This political reach will effectively be earned by the quality of the content, as seen by social media users. These new ad regulations are expected to cause organic posts from candidates’ profiles to become the centerpiece of their social media campaigning. With this shift, only the most engaging candidate content—whether it be promotional videos, articles on the candidate, or petitions on hot button issues—will spread its reach. This change will allow voters to control candidate influence through their own likes, replies, and retweets.

Admittedly, this hope that the cream of the political content will “rise to the top” seems idyllic, but that’s not to say it isn’t an ideal worth striving for. In a democracy, the ability of users to leverage social media gives voters the power to choose which candidate speaks the loudest and reaches the furthest. This ideal, however, can only be enacted by an unbiased and bipartisan filtering of political content, which begs the question: are Jack Dorsey and Twitter up to the task? Furthermore, should the task be left to a private company rather than a government organization such as the FEC or FCC?

Critics of the new rules argue that they prevent a candidate’s ability to use donor money—money that was donated with the purpose of growing and expanding the reach of a campaign. These prohibitions discount the meaning behind a political donation. If Twitter tells campaigns they can no longer pay to reach more people, they are effectively telling the voters who donated to such campaigns that their financial support is not protected as free expression.

For grassroots campaigns that rely heavily on low-dollar donations to feed their outreach communications, eliminating paid ads could prevent candidates from using their own greatest strength: mass grassroots donations. Despite that, these grassroots campaigns are the very campaigns that have enough of a following organically, meaning that the elimination of paid advertising on Twitter might not significantly harm their campaigns. The Sanders campaign, specifically, holds the record for highest Twitter following of the 2020 democratic hopefuls, weighing in at 10 million followers and counting. In fact, between November and December 2019, Sanders gained 184,000 followers, making his the fastest growing reach in the field today.

Overall, Twitter’s new policy is not likely to affect the 2020 elections in a staggering way. When it comes to digital advertising spending, Facebook and Google are still king. As of November 30, the candidates, including President Trump, have collectively spent $57.2 million on Facebook ads. The bulk of this sum, however, was spent by President Trump, with $16.5 million, and businessman Tom Steyer, with $12.3 million. This disproportionate spending between candidates will prove to be an indicator, in the coming months, as to how beneficial Facebook’s lax stance on political advertisements is to individual candidates. However, just as with the 2016 election, we won’t have a full picture of the value of earned reach vs. paid reach in elections until after Election Day.

In the coming years, the debate surrounding best practices for digital ad regulations in politics will only ramp up, with policies developing as quickly as social media evolves. Whether or not the responsibility to fact check political content online will remain with the platforms is yet to be determined, but as social media’s influence on elections continues to flourish, this question will be at the forefront of candidates’ and Congress’ minds.

To learn more about 2020 candidates’ media usage, both online and offline, download National Journal’s 2020 media and advertising overview