On Wednesday, Twitter announced that it will ban all forms of political advertising starting in November, opening up challenging questions about what role social media platforms should play in the 2020 elections. Announced just hours before Facebook’s quarterly earnings call, Twitter’s policy was based on the belief that “political message reach should be earned, not bought,” CEO Jack Dorsey explained.
It’s been a controversial decision — not least with the 2020 presidential frontrunners — but after Facebook’s ongoing fact-checking policy disaster, it’s an appealing option. Would we be better off if platforms just banned political ads entirely?
There’s one place in America where that’s already the case. Washington state boasts some of the strictest campaign finance laws in the country, and after threats of court battles last year, both Facebook and Google decided to ban political ads in the state entirely rather than figure out the nuances of compliance. But those bans haven’t stopped local politicians. Instead, it’s resulted in a tangle of uneven enforcement and confusing rules, making it a cautionary tale for what a poorly implemented ad ban might mean for the 2020 campaigns.
The first major test case for the new system came with Seattle’s city council elections, which will be wrapping in November. Marijuana entrepreneur Logan Bowers ran for city council on an urbanist platform, but he ended up fighting an uphill battle on platforms. He says confusion around the ban “created an unfair and an unlevel playing field and in many ways it made the situation worse.” High-profile ads were ultimately removed by Facebook, usually after they were reported in the media — but plenty of others skated through.
“Some people had their ads restricted and other people didn’t,” Bowers says, usually according to who knew how to spot the loopholes in the system. “Not everyone’s a lawyer.”
Bowers lost his primary on August 6th, taking around 7 percent of the vote.
The haphazard ban hasn’t been successful in keeping Facebook out of trouble with state officials. Earlier this month, Washington state regulators charged Facebook with more violations, finding that the company had continued to sell political ads. In a statement to The Stranger, a Facebook spokesperson said that the company was “working cooperatively with the PDC in an effort to resolve this matter,” but it hasn’t made any changes to its policies so far.
But even if Facebook continues to fight state regulators, the fines likely won’t be significant for the company’s bottom line. The original settlement only cost the company $455,000, which is a minuscule sum for a company that just announced $6 billion in quarterly profits.
“We are committed to protecting elections on Facebook and have built tools to give people more information about the ads they see, including via Facebook’s Ad Library and Ad Library Report,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Verge when reached for comment about the ban.
Crucially, Washington’s regulations don’t include any penalties for politicians who try to place ads. The rules just instruct Facebook and other advertising platforms to be more transparent about who is placing the ads and how much they’re paying for them. The only tangible impact for candidates is that sometimes ads would be taken down — but often, they wouldn’t. So as local races began to heat up, candidates continued to place ads on Facebook and boost posts on their pages to reach potential voters. Plenty of candidates didn’t care about the rule and were willing to exploit Facebook’s unwillingness to enforce it.
In April, The Stranger reported that one Seattle City Council candidate, Heidi Wills, was able to run a handful of ads on Facebook while her opponent, Kate Martin, was blocked from running any. The two candidates got into a spat through the Wills campaign’s own comments section on Facebook with Martin pleading, “Could you stop paying to promote your Facebook posts and just play by the rules like the rest of us? It’s getting annoying.”
Wills replied, “I am following all the rules and you are welcome to stop following my campaign on FB.”
Wills advanced into the November general election with around 21 percent of the vote. Martin lost by a wide margin, placing fifth in the August primary.
As national campaigns have heated up, Facebook and other platforms have faced growing concerns that ad policies might help one candidate more than another. Those concerns came to a head earlier this month when the Joe Biden campaign called out the platform for running misleading ads about the Biden family’s connections to the Ukrainian government. In letters responding to the controversy obtained by The Verge, Facebook’s public policy director for global elections, Katie Harbath, said that the platform would not be fact-checking what politicians say in ads.
“Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is,” Harbath said.
At the same time, a number of attempts to regulate political advertising on platforms have faced stiff resistance in Congress. The Honest Ads Act, a bipartisan measure championed by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Mark Warner (D-VA), would force big tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google to treat campaign ads on their platforms like how they’re treated on radio, television, and print, meaning they would need to disclose publicly who paid for them. There are other measures that focus on privacy that would let users opt out of targeted advertising, like Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) Mind Your Own Business Act. It’s hard to say if these measures will be approved anytime soon, let alone before the 2020 election, but they are filled with enforcement actions the government could take to ensure that platforms are applying their ads policies evenly. For example, Wyden’s bill would authorize the Federal Trade Commission with the ability to fine companies like Facebook and Twitter for first-time offenses, potentially deterring them from misbehaving.
But any policy written into law will ultimately have to be enforced by platforms. And if the past is any test case, those companies may not put much effort into enforcing it even-handedly. If Facebook’s Washington state ban is any guide, the first problem may be incentivizing platforms to pay attention.
Ari Hoffman, a bouncy house tycoon and Republican who ran for the District 2 seat on Seattle’s City Council, told The Verge that he didn’t even think Facebook tried to enforce its ban.
“The policy itself has been weaponized by the politicians, by the PACS, by the newspapers and anybody with special interests,” Hoffman said. “The ban hasn’t really accomplished anything. People just find workarounds. I found workarounds.”
Updated 10/31/19 at 1:45 p.m. ET: Added comment from Facebook.