UPDATE: Twitter backtracks on banning climate ads

But fossil fuel companies like Exxon will still be able to advertise on climate issues, too.

Welcome to HEATED, a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis—written by me, Emily Atkin.

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HEATED is a community, and I love hearing from readers. If you have thoughts, questions, story ideas or tips, you can reach me at emily@heated.world.

Today is an exciting day. It’s our first “Oh wow, we actually might have moved the needle on something!” day. I think we’re gonna have a lot more of these in the future. So thank you again for being a subscriber. These days don’t happen without you.

Also, thank you so much to everyone who responded to my request for reader reactions on Thursday! They were endlessly helpful for my presentation at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard over the weekend. I received 111 responses, 109 of which were positive, and 2 of which were negative. But even the negative ones were really quite nice and informative.

Anyway, I put all of the reader responses in a spreadsheet and analyzed the data for my presentation. If you’re interested, you can see the spreadsheet HERE. A short analysis is at the very bottom.

The speech and follow-up panel went well, all my nervousness considered. I’ll share more about it soon, once I have the video. For now, here are some tweets to prove that this all really did happen! Shout-out to the especially nice tweets from The Guardian’s badass climate reporter Emily Holden. She’s great and you should follow her.

Twitter changes course on climate ads after Elizabeth Warren call-out

Two weeks ago, HEATED published a story about Twitter’s upcoming policy banning political advertisements. The story was critical of Twitter’s decision to include so-called “issue” ads in the ban—that is, ads that don’t mention a particular candidate, but that advocate for a political issue.

HEATED’s story revealed that the policy would benefit corporate polluters while harming grassroots climate groups. For example, many of ExxonMobil’s climate-related ads were not labeled political, and therefore likely wouldn’t be covered by Twitter’s new ad policy. At the same time, grassroots climate groups’ ads were labeled political, and would be banned.

A few hours after publication, Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted about the article. That tweet prompted a reaction from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who said he would be “taking all this into consideration” before the official new ad rules were released on November 15 (last Friday).

Warren and Dorsey’s reactions to HEATED’s investigation sparked a national conversation about Twitter’s ad policy and the climate crisis. The piece and Warren’s response was cited by The GuardianThe Washington PostAxiosCNBCBusiness InsiderThe Intercept, and National Review, among others.

On Thursday, on group of more than 20 environmental organizations released a joint statement calling on Twitter to allow climate-focused issue ads.

Then, on Friday, Twitter backtracked on its original intention to ban issue ads. According to CBS News:

The social media company released details of its ban on political ads on Friday. Under the policy, paid political content won't be allowed. That includes any ad that references a candidate, political party, government official, ballot measure, or legislative or judicial outcome. The ban also applies to all ads — even non-political ones — from candidates, political parties and elected or appointed government officials. It also includes appeals for votes and solicitations for campaign contributions.

However, Twitter is allowing ads related to social causes such as climate change, gun control and abortion. People and groups running such ads won't be able to target those ads down to a user's ZIP code or use political categories such as "conservative" or "liberal," Twitter said. Rather, targeting must be kept broad, such as based on a user's state or province.

The CBS News article explicitly cited HEATED’s reporting when listing the factors that led to Twitter’s decision.

Reporters also pointed out that Twitter's definition of issue ads could set a double standard. The policy would have banned ads from climate activist groups, but permitted ads from fossil-fuel companies that depict them as climate-friendly, according to reporter Emily Atkin.

Big Oil gets to keep running climate ads, too

Environmental organizations will likely rejoice at Twitter’s decision, at it allows them to keep paying to spread messages about the climate crisis.

But they probably won’t be too happy about the flip side of the decision—which is that Big Oil companies like Exxon will still be able to run ads claiming they’re helping to solve the climate crisis by investing in biofuels and carbon capture.

These ads were never considered “political issue” ads by Twitter, despite their explicitly political nature, as Harvard researcher Geoffrey Supran told HEATED two weeks ago.

“Mobil and ExxonMobil have pioneered issue advertising for decades,” he said. “I’ve studied this historical record in detail, and it couldn’t be clearer to me that Twitter ads like these are its twenty-first century extension.”

“These Twitter ads aren’t just any political issue ads—they epitomize the art,” he added.

Environmental groups like Greenpeace have since started calling this a “loophole” in Twitter’s ad policy, and have launched a petition calling on Dorsey to ban oil company greenwashing ads from the platform.

More than 14,000 people have signed the petition so far.

Twitter has not responded to HEATED’s requests to explain why ads from Exxon and other oil companies about their low-carbon efforts are not considered political issue ads.

That may seem irrelevant now that Twitter will allow political issue ads to continue, but it’s not. By not classifying Big Oil’s climate-focused ads as explicitly political—which they are—Twitter is aiding the industry’s climate disinformation campaign.

These ads do not exist to sell consumers a product. They exist to sell the public on an idea: that the fossil fuel industry is working hand in hand with all of us to solve the climate crisis.

It’s a very nice idea. If only it were true.

Twitter is now struggling to define what constitutes a political ad, according to the New York Times, which cited Warren’s tweet about HEATED’s reporting as a reason for the struggle.

Twitter’s new ad policy goes into effect on November 22.

OK, that’s all for today—thank for reading HEATED!

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