On Wednesday, CEO Jack Dorsey announced in a series of posts that Twitter will ban all political ads, noting that political messages “should be earned, not bought”.
“While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics,” Dorsey tweeted. The ban is expected to be enforced from the 22nd of November, but additional details will be released by the company earlier in the month.
This means that ahead of the UK general election and 2020 US presidential election, the power of advertising on Twitter – often a stramash of political discussion – will be greatly diminished.
The move could mark a watershed moment for the social media industry and prompt more serious discussions on the pitfalls and dangers of online ads. Along with social media giant Facebook, Twitter has been subject to intense scrutiny over its role in political discourse – both platforms have grown to become ideological battlegrounds which reverberate with fake news, misinformation and toxic conversation.
For Dorsey and Twitter, however, this is a well-timed play; it separates the platform, to an extent, from the ongoing controversy surrounding Facebook’s political ad policies.
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Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by representatives of the US Congress. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stood out during the hearing, heavily criticising the company’s stance on political ads. US presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has also chastised the company’s policy, going so far as to purposefully run misleading ads to highlight the issue.
Despite calls to re-think its policy, which allows politicians or those running for office to publish intentionally misleading claims, Zuckerberg and Facebook remain steadfast in the belief that the platform should not be a moderator in regards to political advertising.
This stance remains despite Facebook having been repeatedly identified as a key enabler of misinformation campaigns and fake news in the run-up to major elections and referenda in recent years. The furore unfolding at Facebook over political advertising has even reached such boiling that more than 250 employees spoke out against the policy this week.
At one point during the tweet thread, Dorsey fired shots at Facebook over the ongoing policy debacle, stating: “It’s not credible for us to say: ‘We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, but if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad…well…they can say whatever they want!”
Speaking to journalists, Zuckerberg defended Facebook’s policy stance and reiterated his belief that private companies should have no say in political discourse.
“In a democracy, I don’t think it’s right for private companies to censor politicians or the news,” he said.
Although Dorsey has tried to portray this as a proactive attempt to shake-up political advertising on the platform, for some the move is more a symbolic gesture than one that offers tangible practical solutions to the problem.
Matthew Rice, Scotland director at the Open Rights Group, suggested that, despite this, the social media industry will still be faced with “systemic problems”.
“This decision by Twitter is a welcome move, but ultimately a symbolic one,” Rice said. “The bigger problems are in larger platforms like Facebook and in personal data processed by political parties and the campaign groups that support them.”
As a platform, Twitter is indeed the junior when compared to Facebook. Earlier this year, the company confirmed it had some 126 million active daily users. Compared to Facebook, which claimed to have 1.6 billion in September this year, there is a significant gap.
“There are systemic problems, created by lax data protection laws and opaque advertising systems,” he asserted. “Systemic problems need systemic solutions. The only way forward is through reform of the law and new rules for the use of personal data in political campaigns.”
Additionally, Rice suggested that consumers and social media users would be unwise to believe that actors in this space may have a “moral awakening like Twitter” – and even if they did, there could still be opportunities to exploit exemptions in existing legislation.
“The current system is not fit for purpose and we need a lot more than the moral posturing of social media companies to make it fit for purpose,” he said.
Similar concerns over the move have been raised by politicians in the UK. Damian Collins MP, chair of the DCMS committee investigating fake news, tweeted: “The problem has been big networks of fake bot accounts, rather than legitimate advertisers. This move could make life easier for the peddlers of fake news.”