Skip to Content
Election 2020

Five ways political groups are getting around ad bans

Social media sites will start removing campaign ads tonight, but you’ll almost certainly keep get political messages. Here’s how they’ll do it.
November 3, 2020
trump cutout on supporter
trump cutout on supporter
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Online platforms have made bans on political advertising a core part of their plans to mitigate the spread of disinformation around the US elections. Twitter moved early, banning political ads in October 2019. Facebook stopped accepting new ads last week and will indefinitely remove all political ads, old and new, after the polls close on Tuesday (the ban also applies to Instagram). Google and YouTube, meanwhile, will remove all political ads for “at least a week” once polls close. 

Turning off the spigot of political advertising is intended to limit the risk of sophisticated propaganda campaigns that could lead to more confusion or unrest. But that doesn’t mean you won’t hear from political groups at all: because of the way that each platform’s rules work, you’ll still be hearing plenty after the polls close, and in some cases they will still be paying to reach you. Campaigns also might need to fundraise after November 3 in the instance of legal challenges, meaning messages could keep coming for months.

For all platforms, what makes something a “political ad” is cloaked in regulatory legalese, but it generally means paid content that mentions a campaign, a candidate, the election, or social issues from any advertisers, including political action committees and nonprofit organizations.

Here are some of the routes and loopholes they’ll be using: 

Candidates themselves

Electoral candidates and campaigns will still be posting on their social media accounts. This includes personal accounts and any groups or pages related to their campaign, their party, or aligned advocacy groups. It’s likely that organizations will coordinate the sharing of those messages in an effort to get in front of audiences they previously had to pay to reach. 

If any candidate declares victory prior to official election results, Twitter and Facebook have committed to adding labels to those posts. Both companies say they will remove posts that incite violence. But there are concerns about consistent enforcement of these policies. 

Direct messages

Political texting has exploded during this election, and texts are likely to keep hitting your phone beyond Tuesday. Without social media advertising, texting is the easiest way for campaigns to mass-message people outside their supporter network. Data on mobile-phone numbers is widely accessible to both campaigns and interest groups, and the channel skirts regulations from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) around political disclosures. Text messages are also notoriously hard to fact-check: watch out for hard-to-trace texts that claim a victor. 

Emails are also a favored channel for campaign communications and will certainly continue to come in after the polls close. 


The use of influencers for political campaigning, particularly on Instagram, has exploded in 2020, and the Biden and Bloomberg campaign both used influencers as part of their outreach strategy. Facebook has said that Instagram influencers who are paid by a campaign or other group that would usually be subject to ad restrictions are bound by its requirements around disclosure and political advertising.

Recent research indicates that disclosure does not happen consistently. Further, volunteer networks of influencer messaging are under no restrictions so long as they only volunteer intermittently, according to the FEC. Networks of celebrities and “nano-influencers” are free to post any unpaid messages, even if the messages themselves are written, designed, and coordinated by political campaigns. 

Campaign apps

Both presidential campaigns have developed apps for their supporters that allow them to send unlimited push notifications to users. The reach of the apps is obviously limited to those who have downloaded them, including many of each candidate’s base supporters. The Trump campaign app, particularly, collects a great deal of surveillance data on its users, including location and Bluetooth tracking, which could allow it to send notifications based on geographical triggers. 

Coordinated message networks

Organic networks of friends and family members are a great way for political campaigns to garner support, since they have trust and personalization built in. Campaigns and candidates are likely to continue to communicate via those networks using things like scripts and text templates to help supporters talk to their networks in private, unregulated spaces.

For example, a friend of yours might receive a text message from the Trump campaign that includes a text template meant for sharing, or from the Biden campaign that prompts people to reach out to friends with specific messaging.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other
conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other

Forget dating apps: Here’s how the net’s newest matchmakers help you find love

Fed up with apps, people looking for romance are finding inspiration on Twitter, TikTok—and even email newsletters.

computation concept
computation concept

How AI is reinventing what computers are

Three key ways artificial intelligence is changing what it means to compute.

still from Embodied Intelligence video
still from Embodied Intelligence video

These weird virtual creatures evolve their bodies to solve problems

They show how intelligence and body plans are closely linked—and could unlock AI for robots.

We reviewed three at-home covid tests. The results were mixed.

Over-the-counter coronavirus tests are finally available in the US. Some are more accurate and easier to use than others.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.