Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Nick Corasaniti, your host on Tuesdays for our coverage of all things media and messaging.
Flush with $75 million in cash, Pacronym, a new Democratic super PAC, was hoping to make a splash in the impeachment news cycle. Twitter, whose politically active users wage minute-by-minute battles of opinion, seemed like the perfect place to advertise the group’s new line of snarky impeachment merchandise.
That is, until late last month, when Twitter announced it would be banning all political ads.
“While Twitter may not be as valuable of a platform for engaging with voters, it was an ideal place for us to run our ‘Rogue Swag’ campaign selling anti-Trump merchandise to progressive political types,” said Kyle Tharp, a spokesman for Pacronym, which is associated with the group Acronym.
Twitter’s initial announcement, made in a series of tweets by Jack Dorsey, its chief executive, stunned the tech and political communities. Even though political ad spending on Twitter is minuscule compared with the amount on Facebook — the 2020 presidential campaigns have spent $60 million on Facebook this year, according to the tracking firm Advertising Analytics, but just $4 million on Twitter — the idea of banning all political advertising on the platform was still a surprise.
And it set Twitter apart from Facebook and Google, which have not suggested they would take any similarly drastic actions. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has said he will allow even false political advertising on his platform because it is newsworthy.
When Twitter finally rolled out the details of its new policy on Friday, it turned out not to be a blanket ban on all political advertising; some exceptions for issue ads were included. Essentially, all candidates, parties, super PACs and political groups would be turned away. Issue advocacy would be permitted so long as it didn’t expressly endorse specific candidates, ballot measures, legislation or judicial decisions, but these advertisers wouldn’t be able to microtarget specific audiences.
In the Democratic field, candidates largely praised the decision, lest they be seen as supporting the platforms’ hands-off policies of the past that have allowed foreign states and other groups to sow disinformation. But at least three campaigns had spent roughly $1 million each on the platform — Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, and former Representative Beto O’Rourke, who recently dropped out — in part to try to capitalize on major news events.
Of course, many of the candidates in the field benefit from exceptional “organic reach” on Twitter, more so than on any other platform. The Trump campaign, for example, hasn’t spent a dollar promoting @realDonaldTrump, but the president never struggles to get his message out.
But independent expenditure groups (super PACs, issue advocacy organizations and the like) don’t have that kind of natural audience. Since their budgets fluctuate less than a campaign’s, they map out their advertising strategies, outreach and targeting plans months in advance. Rarely do they account for a potential shift in the rules.
As Danielle Butterfield, the director of paid media at Priorities USA, a major Democratic super PAC, told me last week when Twitter announced the specifics of the new policy: “We’re in the middle of the baseball game.”
So Acronym, Priorities USA and many other groups are most likely sitting on plenty of Twitter ads that will never see the light of a few pixels.
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Facebook takes a stand
As we noted above, Facebook has taken a hands-off approach to policing its political advertising, decreeing that such ads will be allowed even if they contain false claims or misinformation. Some critics say the company is too disengaged from the political realities facing the country.
But there are still plenty of rules that govern behavior on the platform, and the company took a stand recently: If people are kicked off Facebook for violating one of its other policies, running for office won’t get them back on.
Take the nascent candidacy of Laura Loomer, a far-right provocateur who is running for a congressional seat in Florida. She was banned from Facebook in May under the platform’s policies against “individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate,” along with other high-profile personalities like Alex Jones of Infowars. (Facebook officials said Ms. Loomer had engaged in a cumulative pattern of behavior that ran afoul of the rules.)
Now, having started a congressional campaign, Ms. Loomer has professed a desire to re-engage with the digital public, and has tried to get a foothold by getting “re-platformed” on Facebook.
But Facebook isn’t wavering.
“People who have been banned from our services aren’t able to set up a new account even if they’re running for office,” the company said in a statement.
The political ascent of Senator Elizabeth Warren has in part been defined by her high-profile battles with the financial industry and with billionaires. A central tenet of her campaign has been establishing a wealth tax on the richest Americans.
While Ms. Warren often talks about her desire to “fight” for her goals, she seldom spars with individual opponents. But a new ad from her campaign, released last week, takes the rare step of attacking by name several American businessmen who have criticized her plans.
The Democratic presidential candidates are loath to openly criticize their intraparty rivals in paid ads. Billionaires, however, are a different story. Ms. Warren targets four cash-stuffed punching bags — billionaires who had leveled criticisms of her or her wealth tax — and juxtaposes those clips with unflattering headlines about them. Leon Cooperman is described as “charged with insider trading.” Lloyd Blankfein “made $70 million during the financial crisis.” But the ad also offers a key visual contrast. Each billionaire is alone on the screen, in an interview setting. The candidate is set on a stage, surrounded by hundreds of supporters who cheer at every break in her speech.
Ms. Warren seems to have shifted from the “I have a plan” phase of her campaign to “I have to fight.” As the campaign sprints toward the Iowa caucuses, it’s a distinction she’s drawing with her more moderate rivals. By publicly shaming American tycoons, Ms. Warren is attempting to show just how aggressively she will fight what she portrays as the establishment class. And while Senator Bernie Sanders, her fellow liberal iconoclast, has been running more traditional ads, Ms. Warren’s decision to air her new ad on CNBC in New York City and Washington has helped generate a news cycle out of her battle with the billionaires.
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