Twitter Restores the Voices of Nonprofit Organizations, Including Ours

January 9, 2023 | Luke Wachob

It’s been a long time since Twitter could be considered a friend to free speech. For years, the company has been accused of banning and shadow-banning users without an effective appeals process. Recently, we learned how Twitter executives worked behind the scenes with politicians and government officials to protect the government-approved narrative on elections, COVID-19, and other controversial topics.

Fortunately, Twitter’s reputation as one of Big Tech’s biggest censors may be starting to change. The company just took a major step towards promoting free speech by ending former CEO Jack Dorsey’s ban on “caused-based advertising” from nonprofits, advocacy groups, and other Twitter users.

“We believe that cause-based advertising can facilitate public conversation around important topics. Today, we’re relaxing our ads policy for cause-based ads in the US,” Twitter’s Safety team announced on January 3rd.

The new direction is a lifeline to charitable organizations and social movements still trying to find their base. Digital advertising on platforms like Twitter offers an affordable means of reaching potential new supporters for startup groups. Ads about social issues can also help raise public awareness of vital causes and spur Americans into action, especially in response to time-sensitive issues or new developments.

Allowing caused-based advertising is also just plain good for free speech. Citizens should be free to speak to each other about important public issues like education, immigration, and taxes on the same terms that companies are allowed to promote commercial items like video streaming services, pharmaceutical products, and makeup. Twitter was wrong to ban these ads in the first place, as critics on the left and right charged at the time.

Through its advertising ban, the company embraced the misguided logic that ads were an intrusion on public discourse rather than a natural part of it. Stating that “reach should be earned, not bought” in 2019, Dorsey pulled up the ladder on newer groups and candidates still trying to build their audience, handing a significant advantage to more well-known individuals and organizations that already had a large following and greater public awareness of their work and beliefs. The company’s policy slanted Twitter’s already uneven playing field further in favor of incumbent politicians, legacy media, established advocacy groups, and early adopters of the platform.

People United for Privacy Foundation experienced the harm of Twitter’s ad ban firsthand. Like many other growing nonprofits, we use digital advertising to help bring our message to people who have likely never heard it before. Digital ads are one way we educate the public about key policy issues, advocate for our members’ beliefs, and recruit new supporters and allies in our work. When the ban went into effect, we had to pause our Twitter campaigns and use other platforms to communicate with Americans about important privacy and speech issues pending before the Internal Revenue Service, United States Congress, and state legislatures. For our followers who prefer to consume news and information on Twitter, it became significantly more difficult to communicate with them about issues we know they care about.

Of course, ads can’t say everything there is to say about a group or an issue. They have to be short and memorable, especially online. But ads are nevertheless a vital first step in introducing an organization, an issue, or a message to the wider world. We’ll never know how many movements were blunted during the three plus years Twitter prevented advocacy groups from speaking freely on the platform.

Let Twitter’s failed ad ban serve as a reminder: social media companies put charitable causes at risk when they attempt to clamp down on speech about civic issues and public policy. In fact, The Wall Street Journal recently found that Facebook’s efforts to demote political content led to significant declines in charitable giving through the platform. These consequences may be unintended, but we have seen them too many times to act surprised.

Twitter’s decision to prohibit nonprofits from running ads about issues was yet another case of a Big Tech company attempting to control public discourse when they feel like the government isn’t doing enough. It was also one of Twitter’s most direct restrictions on political speech – carried out in the open, with no need for a dramatic reveal in the Twitter Files. Elon Musk has vowed to bring free speech back to Twitter. Correcting the old regime’s error and allowing nonprofits to promote their causes is a major step in the right direction.