Nov 21, 2019 - Economy

Rivals distance themselves from Facebook on political ads

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Google, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat all made new announcements this week adjusting their political ad policies, placing themselves on a broad spectrum from anything goes to a near-total ban.

Why it matters: Many social media companies are using the ongoing political ad debate to distance themselves from Facebook, which has received the most criticism for its policies. Facebook's rules are the least restrictive amongst the group, because the tech giant believes that the government should regulate political ads, not private companies.

Driving the news: Google said Wednesday it was changing its political ads policy globally to restrict audience targeting for verified political advertisers. The decision means its policies are less restrictive than Twitter's when it comes to free speech, but more aggressive than Facebook's.

  • Twitter said just days earlier that it would be making some exceptions to its newly-announced political advertising ban after received pushback for allowing for-profits to buy ads that could technically be political in nature. Despite the exceptions, Twitter's policies are still more restrictive than many of its rivals. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey believes the internet's speed and scale "brings significant risks to politics."
  • Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel said on Monday that the company has a dedicated team that fact-checks all political ads on its platform. Snap's position puts it at a middle ground between Twitter's ban and Facebook's highly-criticized policy of not fact-checking political ads at all. Spiegel said having political ads on Snapchat is important because Snapchat reaches so many young voters.
  • Pinterest, TikTok and LinkedIn have all opted not to sell political ads over the past year or so. Each company's policies differ in enforcement and severity. But these players, which never received much political ad revenue or attention to begin with, seem eager to avoid the drama around political ads altogether.

Facebook VP of Marketing Solutions Carolyn Everson told Axios Monday that the company is still considering changes to its ads policy and nothing is off the table, including changes to ad targeting.

  • But sources say that despite the criticism, Facebook is unlikely to make any sweeping changes to its policies, which it believes support free speech.

The big picture: Facebook is under enormous pressure in both directions from Democrats, Republicans and industry leaders, putting the company in a lose-lose position.

  • The Trump campaign launched an attack on Facebook Wednesday after Facebook told Axios that it was still considering changes to its targeting policies. The Trump campaign, along with other Republican groups, supports Facebook's current policy.
  • Democrats have criticized Facebook over both targeting and its decision not to fact check political ads, because they think it has helped the Trump campaign spread falsehoods. High-profile Democrats like Hillary Clinton, as well as industry leaders like Bill Gates, have called on Facebook to limit micro-targeting in political ads.

The bottom line: The political ads debate has forced the world's biggest social media companies to take a stand on issues that are bigger than political ads themselves, like free speech, capitalism and democracy.

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