Facebook pledged last week to reveal all ads being shown to its users, even those not appearing on advertiser profiles, after it was revealed that the company ran Russian-linked ads meant to influence the election. Twitter, however, will not commit to the same, and appears to have no plans to expose its so-called dark posts to public scrutiny.
Twitter, which had an outsized presence in the 2016 US presidential election thanks largely to then-candidate Donald Trump, currently hides promoted posts that don’t appear publicly on ad buyers’ profiles. And as of this writing it appears to have no plans to do otherwise.
Last Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his company intends to make these dark posts public as part of an effort to increase transparency after discovering that Russia-linked ads on Facebook may have interfered with the US presidential election.
Dark ads or posts are commonly purchased on social networks as a way to reach very specific audiences. The messaging is typically targeted at a particular demographic and the posts delivering it aren’t visible on the advertisers’ timelines or pages after they’ve been shared. They're especially useful in politics, where advertisers can create scores of highly targeted ads meant to be shown to specific segments of the electorate.
Twitter's current policy allows advertisers to run dark ads without showing them to the broader public. Asked if it would follow Facebook's lead and make publicly visible the dark ads currently hidden on its platform, a Twitter spokesperson declined to answer, saying simply, "We don't have anything to announce now."
That would leave Twitter behind Facebook, which Zuckerberg said hopes to create “a new standard for transparency in online political ads.”
Dark ads have long frustrated researchers, who say they hamper deep understanding of political campaigns. And because they are not subject to the same oversight as traditional radio, TV, and print ads, they’re also enticing to foreign entities that might seek to influence elections without leaving a trail of digital breadcrumbs. Facebook, for example, has been drawn into a congressional inquiry into the Kremlin’s influence operation during the 2016 US presidential campaign because of dark ads that appeared on its pages.
Congress has recently been ratcheting up its scrutiny of how major online platforms handle political ads. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner are trying to rally support for a bill that would require digital platforms with over 1 million users to put any political ad buy of more than $10,000 into a public database. Meanwhile, the Federal Election Commission is examining online ad disclosure rules.
“We hope Twitter will demonstrate leadership by acknowledging the issues dark ads on social media present for democratic states and work with the FEC and Congress to enact sensible legislative and regulatory reforms for disclosure and disclaimers for online platforms that host paid political ads,” said Alex Howard, deputy director of Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan government transparency group.
Howard's call for transparency comes as Twitter leadership is expected to meet with the Senate Intelligence Committee in relation to its Russian election-tampering investigation this week.
After this story was published, Twitter provided BuzzFeed News with an additional statement: "So-called dark tweets are simply promoted ads that show up for some users, as opposed to appearing on the full platform for all users. They are still marked as Promoted content and are identical to all other Twitter ads."
Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.
Contact Alex Kantrowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.