Banning ‘political’ ads, Dorsey throws himself into a political thicket.
The press feted Mr. Dorsey as a hero compared to the democracy-destroying Mr. Zuckerberg. But once the anti-Trump high had worn off, progressives started to realize that a Twitter political-ad ban could block their speech too. Some climate activists, for example, use Twitter ads to find an audience.
Now Twitter has backtracked from Mr. Dorsey’s promised blanket ban on political ads. The policy Twitter announced Friday allows some political ads but not others. Ads from candidates, parties and PACs are banned, but individuals, corporations and nonprofits may still pay to promote political messages (though their ability to target ads to users will be restricted).
For those that can advertise, Twitter will impose convoluted political controls. Ads can’t mention politicians, elections or legislation and also “should not have the primary goal of driving political, judicial, legislative, or regulatory outcomes.” Sounds comprehensive, right?
But wait. Twitter says it will allow “cause based” ads that “call for people to take action in connection with civic engagement, economic growth, environmental stewardship, or social equity causes.”
Meanwhile Twitter’s “issue ads” policy covers “abortion, civil rights, climate change, guns, healthcare, immigration, national security, social security, taxes, and trade.” Apparently ads can take a position on such issues so long as Twitter’s ad police judge them as not aimed at driving political “outcomes.” What a mess. It’s no wonder Twitter is already saying it expects to “make mistakes” in enforcement.
If the NRA Foundation runs an ad campaign on the right to bear arms, is that an issue ad or is it advocacy for a “judicial outcome” and thus prohibited? What about a Planned Parenthood ad supporting abortion rights—is that impermissible advocacy for legislation or is it an issue ad about health care or “social equity”?
The main effect of the policy is to give Twitter wide discretion to either approve or ban political content. This opens the door to bias. Even if the company tries to be neutral between right and left—and we’re skeptical, given Mr. Dorsey’s political opportunism in ordering the ad ban—it will be accused of bias when it blocks ads on grounds advertisers can’t understand.
Meanwhile, the company’s outright prohibition on candidate ads is a gift to established politicians or those who make outrageous claims. Mr. Dorsey intoned that political messages shouldn’t be “compromised by money” but ads are most valuable for speech that wouldn’t otherwise find an audience.
Conceived in sanctimony about Mr. Trump, Twitter’s policy could end up benefiting incumbents like him even as it pulls Twitter into a political thicket. Better if social-media companies recognize that, whatever their engineering expertise, it doesn’t extend to designing elaborate systems for controlling political speech.