A savvy manoeuvre designed to pile pressure on Facebook, the detail of Twitter’s restriction on political advertising is taking shape – and its complexity may cause headaches for the microblogging site.

Political ads will be barred, and issue-based ads will be stopped from using the platform’s micro-targeting capabilities, based on postcode or political leanings, but will still be able to advertise. 

Twitter laid out plans in comments to press last week, with the company’s head of legal and policy, Vijaya Gadde explaining that the change was designed to make “our service, and hopefully, political outcomes – and the world – better.” These new plans will come into effect on the 22nd November.

“This is entirely new terrain,” Gadde said, adding that the firm is prepared for the inevitable mistakes, and plans to refine and improve the policy over time. As was pointed out by various outlets when CEO Jack Dorsey first announced the ban, political advertising accounts for just a small fraction of Twitter’s overall revenues. On Friday, the company confirmed that it doesn’t expect the new rules to hit its Q4 revenues.

According to Twitter, the purpose of the platform, in a political sense, is to create a record of messages visible to all. “One of the benefits of Twitter being a public platform is that you can be held accountable for what you say,” said Del Harvey, Twitter’s VP, trust and safety, in comments reported by the Guardian. “Part of what we’re trying to do with the limits on targeting is to prevent those super-siloed arguments.”

Ultimately, the changes revolve around micro-targeting and who is allowed to use it. The effects of the technique are largely unknown in a political (and even in a commercial) context, but it’s the main offer of Twitter’s advertising capability: boost visibility among people you want to reach.

For straightforwardly political groups, the new rules are strict. All political content will be banned; Twitter defines this as “content that references a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive, or judicial outcome.”

Candidates, parties, and elected officials will be stopped from running any kind of ads; in the US, the ban will also include non-profit 501(c)(4) advocacy groups, political action committees (organisations that pool contributions in favour of a particular campaign) and Super PACs (committees whose donations are not limited by law but are only indirectly connected to a campaign or candidate).

The policy has also sought to address legitimate concerns that it would hand undue advantage to traditional advertisers working in politically controversial industries. For instance, the presidential candidate and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren pointed out that a blanket ban on all political causes would limit the ability of climate change groups to broadcast their message while doing nothing to limit fossil fuel companies from promoting their position.

As such, brand ads that are “cause-based” are able to address political issues like the economy and the environment, provided they don’t advocate for or against any electoral, regulatory, legislative, or judicial outcomes. They are also only able to target at a national, provincial, or regional level.

Complexity comes from Twitter’s new power, and possible headache, in that it will have to make more judgements on the nature of the organisations promoting cause-based ideas. From a brand perspective, one of the knottiest examples of this is that for-profit organisations (companies) will be able to run cause-based ads if said cause is related to its “publicly stated values, principles, and/or beliefs.” Similarly, Twitter will allow recognised news organisations to run ads as long as they don’t push for or against an issue. Again, this will be for the company to decide.

Effectively, Twitter is creating a difficult set of challenges for itself by having to define what is political and make a lot of decisions around those definitions - the sort of decision the company has struggled with in the past. Many of these decisions will be made in-flight, especially as a UK General Election campaign roars into action during implementation and the 2020 US Presidential election ramps up. There will inevitably be attempts to cheat the rules, blurred lines and enforcement issues. Twitter’s predicament will yield valuable lessons from this exercise, for better or worse.  

Financial Times, The Guardian, WARC, Vox