Twitter blocked the ad on Monday. On Tuesday, it changed its mind.
On Monday, Twitter blocked a campaign video ad from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, calling the ad “inflammatory” and claiming that it violated the company’s ad guidelines.
On Tuesday, Twitter changed its mind. Blackburn can now promote the video, in which the self-described “hardcore, card carrying Tennessee conservative” talked about her efforts to stop “the sale of baby body parts,” in a reference to Planned Parenthood.
“After further review, we have made the decision to allow the content in question from Rep. Blackburn’s campaign ad to be promoted on our ads platform,” a Twitter spokesperson said in an email to Recode. “While we initially determined that a small portion of the video used potentially inflammatory language, after reconsidering the ad in the context of the entire message, we believe that there is room to refine our policies around these issues. We have notified Rep. Blackburn’s campaign of this decision.”
— Marsha Blackburn (@VoteMarsha) October 9, 2017
Twitter’s flip-flop is indicative of a much larger issue that content platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Google are all facing: What role should they play in determining what online content should be allowed, and what content should be removed, especially when it comes to touchy social and political issues?
Twitter’s initial decision to block promotion of the video was significant, given Silicon Valley’s recent realization that Russian agents manipulated the ad systems of social media platforms like Facebook and Google to stoke unrest during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. (Twitter says its ad platform hasn’t been exploited by foreign actors the way Facebook’s was, but hundreds of Twitter accounts with Kremlin ties were found on the service.)
It looked like Twitter, which had advertising guidelines in place before this, was suddenly taking a harder line against the kinds of political content that could be promoted to the masses. It was proof that Twitter is willing to make editorial judgments, that it isn’t simply a neutral platform for all speech, as its founders have often said.
Twitter has made these kinds of judgments before, both for ads and for content in general. The company has banned multiple users for life for violating its rules, and during the campaign, it blocked a promoted hashtag that then-candidate Donald Trump wanted to run ahead of a debate with Hillary Clinton.
But Twitter’s decision to backtrack is a reminder that editorial decisions are hard, especially when they’re made by companies that are trying to appease everybody. Relinquishing its ban on Blackburn’s video ad offers us a small taste of what is likely to come in the wake of Russia’s election interference. Facebook, for example, has told advertisers that it will manually review political ads moving forward, in an effort to control who is buying the ads and what they’re saying.
But what happens when Facebook’s manual approval system leads to an ad that some people love, and others find “inflammatory”? Twitter just gave us a glimpse.
“Our ads policies strive to balance protecting our users from potentially distressing content while allowing our advertisers to communicate their messages,” the company wrote in its email to Recode. “Nowhere is this more difficult than in the realm of political advertising and the highly charged issues that are often addressed therein.”