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Twitter, Facebook Divergence on Political Ads Shows Tension in Regulating Speech

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10/31/2019 | 05:59pm EST

By Emily Glazer

Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. are staking out starkly different positions about how to handle political ads, but it is unclear how either approach will prevent the spread of misinformation.

Some social-media websites have banned ads related to candidates, political parties and legislation. But blocking issues-based advertising, such as ads from advocacy groups or trade organizations, can be hard to enforce, tech executives and media buyers say.

Twitter said Wednesday that it would stop accepting political and issue ads -- categories that constitute a fraction of the company's total ad revenue -- world-wide starting Nov. 22, with exceptions such as those encouraging voter registration. Other platforms also allow ads relating to voter registration or mobilization, but tech companies must consider who is paying for those ads and what words they use in them.

Twitter considered stopping only candidate ads but decided that issue ads presented a way to circumvent the ban, Chief Executive Jack Dorsey tweeted. Twitter will release specifics on Nov. 15.

"Twitter has come up with the maximum response," said Alex Stamos, a Stanford University adjunct professor who previously served as Facebook's security chief. "That will get them the short-term PR benefits but might be much more difficult to enforce." For instance, Mr. Stamos cited the gray area around blocking issue-focused ads, such as Nike Inc.'s ad featuring former NFL quarterback-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick.

Facebook continues to allow all political ads to run and doesn't fact-check statements from politicians, and on Wednesday CEO Mark Zuckerberg staunchly defended the company's stance and ad-transparency initiatives.

"Google, YouTube and most internet platforms run these same ads, most cable networks run these same ads, and of course national broadcasters are required by law to run them by FCC regulations," Mr. Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post. "Would we really block ads for important political issues like climate change or women's empowerment?"

Even Facebook's more hands-off approach raises potential enforcement quandaries. Who qualifies for the fact-checking exemption given to politicians -- and when -- has not been spelled out, though Facebook has said it would not allow a California man who announced a political campaign solely for the purpose of running fake advertisements to take advantage of the exemption.

The scrutiny around digital political speech comes as lawmakers have criticized companies for not being responsive enough in stopping the spread of misleading information in past U.S. elections.

Social platforms, including Twitch, video-sharing app TikTok, and Pinterest Inc., each have policies blocking political advertising. But that hasn't stopped candidates, campaign staffers and digital-media buyers from finding potential loopholes to advertise or otherwise get more attention on the apps or websites. Digital political ad spending is expected to reach roughly $2.9 billion for next year's election, more than double the amount spent in 2016, according to consulting firm Borrell Associates Inc.

The media buyer for Priorities USA, a progressive super political-action committee, several times reached out to Pinterest about running ads in the 2018 election in efforts to reach middle-aged suburban women, people familiar with the matter said.

Pinterest initially told Bully Pulpit Interactive, the media buyer, it was still figuring out its policy and wouldn't give a decision right away. It later said it wasn't going to allow political ads, the people said. Bully Pulpit over about six months pitched several different concepts that "weren't explicitly political" and were more focused on civics, one of the people said, but none panned out.

A Pinterest spokeswoman declined to comment about Priorities USA, but said the company made its decision on political ads in July 2018 "to create a positive, welcoming environment for our Pinners." She added that the policy is part of a broader strategy to address potential misinformation and disinformation.

Twitch, whose parent company Amazon.com Inc. doesn't accept political advertisements, has said politicians aren't allowed to buy or sell advertising on the app. But politicians can direct viewers to make donations elsewhere and it does allow ads in support of voter registration, a Twitch spokeswoman said.

Some political figures already have Twitch channels: President Trump launched an account in October and livestreamed a campaign rally. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders's campaign started a channel earlier this year to stream rallies and town-hall events, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang's campaign set up a channel in summer 2018.

In the weeks before the 2018 election, NextGen America PAC, which works to turn out the youth vote and was founded by hedge-fund manager-turned-presidential candidate Tom Steyer, bought a series of ads on Twitch focused on voting in general. One of the ads featured former President Obama, according to those reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Twitch agreed to the ad buy -- a mix of short videos and display ads -- but later mulled backing out, though ultimately the ads published, people familiar with the matter said.

Alex Kellner, managing director at Bully Pulpit Interactive who has worked on ad strategies for NextGen, said he would still try to buy ads on Twitch this cycle. "I may be a glutton for punishment, may be pushing the needle, but I would rather be told no than assuming I'm going to be, " he said.

TikTok, owned by Chinese firm Bytedance Inc., forbids ads that promote or oppose a candidate, current leader, political party or group, or issue at the federal, state or local level. Presidential candidates including former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, former U.S. Housing and Urban Department Secretary Julián Castro and Mr. Yang recently introduced themselves to voters through The Washington Post's TikTok account.

Twitter may face more challenges as it tries to crack down on political ads.

"The problem of enforcing a ban on political advertising is roughly the same as enforcing disclosure of political advertising," said Laura Edelson, a doctoral student working on New York University's political ad-transparency project.

Twitter's political-advertising team in recent years shifted from targeting political campaigns to more steady clients like trade associations, advocacy groups and federal agencies, people familiar with the matter said.

Under Twitter's new policy, trade associations may be able to advertise but not mention legislation, races or elections. "So frankly that really limits what they're going to be able to do and how they're going to be able to message in a meaningful way," said Jenna Golden, former head of political and advocacy sales at Twitter, who now runs her own consulting firm.

--Patience Haggin and Jeff Horwitz contributed to this article.

Write to Emily Glazer at emily.glazer@wsj.com

Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
FACEBOOK 0.85% 201.05 Delayed Quote.53.37%
NIKE, INC. 1.26% 97 Delayed Quote.30.83%
PINTEREST, INC. 1.74% 18.76 Delayed Quote.0.00%
SQUARE, INC. 1.25% 67.98 Delayed Quote.21.20%
TWITTER 0.50% 30.19 Delayed Quote.5.05%
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