Twitter's political ad decision could go far beyond Twitter

Its larger impact could be felt if Facebook or YouTube also tighten regulations.

Twitter headquarters in San Francisco. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
Twitter headquarters in San Francisco. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

As if the political environment in the U.S. wasn’t wild enough, Twitter threw a wrench into the plans of campaigns late last month when it banned political ads, perhaps even setting a precedent for other social media platforms. 

On the platform he runs, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said, "We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought." He explained in a series of tweets that "political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine-learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information and deep fakes." 

The ultimate impact of Twitter’s decision could depend on whether other social media platforms follow suit. Facebook and Google are reportedly considering tightening their political ad policies, as well. 

However, experts say there is no indication that Facebook or Google would stop taking political ads altogether. In fact, the former has said in the interest of free speech, it won’t even fact-check political ads.

Both Google and Facebook would have more to lose than Twitter. Facebook has reportedly raked in $857 million from political and issues-based ads, while Google and its YouTube platform tallied $122 million. Twitter only made $3 million in political ad revenue during the 2018 midterm election cycle. 

"The symbolism of this decision is more dramatic than the overall impact it will have on political campaigns, which will be fairly minimal," notes Nedra Pickler, MD of Glover Park Group. "It is likely whatever budgets that campaigns would spend on Twitter will shift to other digital and social platforms, mainly Facebook and YouTube." 

But what if Facebook and Google, while not banning political ads, require more disclosures about an advertiser’s background or introduce guardrails to micro-targeting? "Shifts on those platforms would have a much bigger impact," stresses Pickler.  

Uncertainty about the two tech titans’ next move could drive innovation, but in the meantime, questions about the rules of engagement for political communications is creating a headache for campaigns. 

"It’s impossible to make plans or finalize strategic investments if you can’t know what the rules will be moving forward," says Matt Compton, director of advocacy and engagement at Blue State, adding that uncertainty could drive some creativity. "Organizers will be looking for opportunities to redistribute dollars, and this is one of those times when necessity might be the mother of invention."

However, Compton is not buying the notion that Twitter’s policy change will curb the spread of misinformation and false content from political manipulators. 

"Advertising is not our biggest problem when it comes to election integrity because it’s already subject to at least some regulation and disclosure. Today, the misinformation finding its way to wide audiences is organic," he explains. "Until the platforms decide to tackle their organic problem, the other choices they make is just so much rearranging of deck chairs." 

When it comes to the power of organic communications on Twitter to mobilize and engage a political base with information — or misinformation — there’s no better example than President Donald Trump. 

Since his inauguration, the former businessman and reality TV star has tweeted more than 11,000 times. The New York Times has reviewed every single Trump tweet, as well as the more than hundreds of Twitter accounts he has retweeted. Some of those accounts belong to propaganda and extremist groups that have since been suspended by Twitter, according to the Times

Noting Trump’s success, some experts suspect campaigns are looking at ways to amplify messaging without using paid tactics. The difference: they’re planning to use authentic, old-school grassroots tactics such as targeted events, rallies and media opps in key markets. 

"By activating on-the-ground, you can amplify your brand on these digital platforms like Twitter the same way you would if you were paying for an ad," says Sam Myers, president of BCW grassroots agency Direct Impact and a former staffer on the Obama for America and Hillary for America campaigns. 

He points to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who arrived at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Liberty and Justice Celebration dancing with a drum corps. 

"It garnered incredible earned media across all digital platforms," says Myers. "So there are still ways to break through by investing in solutions on the ground."

Campaigns could also do more targeted outreach to media whose reporters and followers have robust Twitter presences. "I will be curious to see if campaigns evolve to include more tech-focused outlets in their outreach, like the Wireds and TechCrunchs of the world, and if this causes them to be more a force," he says. 

Programmatic ads and video: A ‘strong alternative’ 

Twitter is valuable to political campaigns for reasons other than just firing up the base. From Twitter ads, a campaign can glean real-time insights on a highly specified target that go beyond aggregate metrics. With tweaks, ads can strengthen support and avoid giving fuel to the opposition.

"Twitter gives you a chance to see who is commenting and what they are saying," says Mac Struthers, global head of paid media at APCO Worldwide in Washington, DC. "This is invaluable to campaigns as they think about what works well in terms or reinforcing their messaging with their target audience."

With political ads off the table, he advises campaigns to turn to programmatic and video ads, calling them "a very strong alternative to Twitter in terms of targeting, control and the cost of media." 

The challenge or drawback is the cost, time and talent it takes to build the creative to specific specs. 

"For campaigns that are well-funded, I think that they’ll lose a degree of insight, but largely they’ll be able to shift and leverage programmatic to replace Twitter," says Struthers. "This is because they have budget to overcome both the less ease of use and the creative challenges, which allows them to keep the cost of media desirable, and to leverage even more robust targeting."  

But for cash-strapped campaigns, he notes that "the Twitter ban will make things very hard on smaller campaigns." 

"The impact to smaller campaigns is fewer working dollars going towards media and a reduced ability to reach key voters," says Struthers. 

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