Stories

Political ads become 2020 flashpoint

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Tech giants, TV networks, and even transit companies are all struggling to figure out how to manage political ads ahead of the 2020 election. While some firms choose to run lots of political and issue ads with little oversight, others opt to ban them altogether.

Why it matters: Absent strict government regulation of political ads across all media, the decision over how to manage those ads is left to companies. And while most firms have faced this dilemma for years, the hyper-political environment leading up to 2020 is shining a stronger spotlight to their decisions.

Driving the news: TikTok, the Chinese-owned viral karaoke app, said Thursday that it would ban political ads because they don't fit the company's goal of creating an "entertaining, genuine experience" for users.

  • "Any paid ads that come into the community need to fit the standards for our platform, and the nature of paid political ads is not something we believe fits the TikTok platform experience," the company said in a statement.

That position is unusual compared to its Big Tech competitors in the U.S.

  • Political ad experts expect well over $1 billion to be spent on digital ads alone this campaign cycle. So far, presidential campaigns have spent more than $60 million on Google and Facebook this year. About $1.2 million has been spent on political ads on Snapchat since last June.

Yes, but: Facebook, Google and others have faced enormous scrutiny for letting groups buy ads that promote false or misleading claims.

  • Most recently, Facebook banned ads from conservative news outlet The Epoch Times, after NBC News reported that the company had funneled its Facebook ads through other dummy sites to hide their connection to its $2 million pro-Trump campaign. The company sharpened its political ad rules shortly thereafter.
  • Facebook, Google and most recently Snapchat have all set up political advertising archives to bring transparency to their advertising policies and the ads that run on their platforms.

Be smart: It's not just Big Tech that's grappling with these decisions.

  • On Thursday The Daily Beast reported that CNN refused to air two Trump campaign ads that push misleading claims and suggest the network's anchors are the Democrats' "media lapdogs." The Trump campaign says the ad is factually accurate.
  • According to the law, over-the-air broadcasters and local cable companies can't reject ads from legally qualified candidates. But that precedent hasn't been tested for national cable companies.
  • It is unprecedented for TV networks to reject political ads for inaccuracies, but these types of situations don't usually occur this far out from the general election.

Metro authorities and other out-of-home (billboard) companies also struggle with this dilemma. The WMATA (DC's Metro authority) banned political and advocacy ads in 2015 after a receiving a request to run ads featuring the Prophet Muhammad. The MTA, New York City's transit authority, also banned them that year on buses and subways.

  • Most recently, WMATA reversed its decision for ads for an art exhibition on the migrant crisis this summer, but didn't give a reason for the switch.

The big picture: Traditional media companies have had years to develop rigorous political and advocacy advertising guidelines and approval processes.

  • But for newer tech companies that were born without regulations, and for national cable and transit companies, figuring out the appropriate balance between oversight and acceptance has proven difficult.

The bottom line: Some companies find that the risk raised by allowing controversial ads can often outweigh the money they bring in. Others recognize that risk, but believe allowing political ads aligns with their mission of supporting fair debate. Ahead of the next election, their decisions either way will be closely watched.