New social media policies regarding political advertising already changing the 2020 political playbooks

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As the national conversation surrounding the role of social media companies in influencing elections continues to heat up in the run-up to the 2020 elections, Twitter and Google have taken drastic and controversial steps to strengthen their internal political advertising policies.

Social media platforms have faced growing scrutiny since the 2016 election, as various investigations have verified that foreign actors exploited weaknesses in their digital advertising rules to spread misinformation through targeted political outreach. In light of these findings, technology companies are under mounting pressure from the public and Congress to push back against the spread of political disinformation through their platforms.

In November, Twitter became the first social media provider to institute a ban on political advertising across its platform. The ban took effect on November 22, following an October 30 announcement from CEO Jack Dorsey and the November 22 release of the full policy to the public. The ban applies to any promoted political advertisements intended to influence elections and ballot measures. Under its new rules, all political advertisements, whether from campaigns, government officials (elected or appointed), PACs or 501(c)(4) groups, that mention specific candidates, elections or legislation will be banned. These restricted sources will also be prohibited from running any paid/promoted advertisements on Twitter’s platform under the political ad ban. Guidance published by Twitter identifies “political content” as any content that includes references to a candidate, political party, government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive or judicial outcome. While candidates and government officials will no longer be able to launch promoted advertisements to targeted audiences on Twitter, there are no restrictions on what individual user accounts can post or share with existing followers. Additionally, any advertisements run by restricted sources that contain references to political content (e.g., appeals for votes, solicitations of financial support, and advocacy for or against political content) are banned under the new policy.

In addition to instituting a blanket ban on political advertisements, Twitter’s new policy seeks to place restrictions on targeted digital advertisements for high-profile social issues, such as climate change, gun control, and abortion. Individuals and groups will no longer be able to target social-issue ads to a user’s zip code or political identification. Instead, targeted advertisements will be restricted to broad geographical zones, such as states. News outlets will be exempted from the advertising ban provided posts/ads do not advocate for a specific political outcome. Organizations (including businesses and 501(c)(3) organizations) and activists will not be completely blocked from running ads on the platform however. Advertisements that focus on broadly defined political causes and social issues will still be permitted from non-restricted sources so long as posts refrain from advocating for/against candidates, elections or legislative proposals.

Google, not to be outdone, announced on November 20 that it would likewise be curtailing how political candidates and organizations are allowed to advertise on its platform moving forward. The new policy, which will take effect on January 6, 2020, does not outright ban certain groups from making political ads like Twitter does, but instead seeks to limits targeted election messaging by political organizations and candidates to three general categories of age, gender and location (down to the postal code level) in the US. This shift in permissible targeting categories contrasts with Google’s current advertising policies, which allows political ad targeting to specific audiences using personal user information such as political affiliation and voting records. Google’s new policy will also prohibit ads containing demonstrably false claims or misleading information that have the potential to undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process. Examples of prohibited ads provided by company officials in this context include communications that falsely claimed that a candidate has died or ads that gave the wrong date for an election, but it is not clear how much further this false content screening mechanism will stretch.  Google does claim, however, that its new policies will not attempt to regulate the veracity of ads containing standard political speech on which opposing political sides may disagree.

While Facebook has refrained from implementing an outright ban on political ads, the company unveiled more stringent disclosure rules for political communications in September. Industry insiders are expecting the company to join Twitter and Google in the near future, however. These self-regulatory efforts by America’s Silicon Valley technology giants are being closely watched by lawmakers and regulators at the federal and state levels as government officials weigh whether and how to wade into the fray over political speech on the Internet. It remains to be seen how effective these self-imposed measures will be at deterring foreign and other bad actors from spreading political disinformation as the first presidential primaries of the 2020 election cycle draw near. The Dentons Political Law Team will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates as necessary.