Twitter’s political ad ban a hopeful but empty gesture
If Twitter were truly serious about the need to 'focus efforts on the root problems' of internet communications, they would be better off working to counter the plague of bots and racist discourse, writes Victoria University of Wellington's Michael S. Daubs
At the end of October, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that the social network will “stop all political advertising on Twitter globally”. Although the details of this new policy will not be released until November 15, the decision has been a topic of much discussion over the past few days. When asked about it by friends and colleagues, my response was that I was “enthusiastically ambivalent”. Why? As I explained (on Twitter, appropriately), the decision is “one of those rare things that is both a big deal and likely to have minimal impact.”
The reason the Twitter ad ban is potentially a big deal is that it represents at least some acknowledgement by a major platform of the potential influence “digital intermediaries” such as social networks can have on elections. Compared with Facebook’s recent decision to allow politicians to outright lie in ads on the social network and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s much-maligned performance while being questioned by members of the US Congress in late October, Twitter’s move seemed, on the surface, to be a refreshing change of pace. New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose masterful questioning of Zuckerberg the previous week became a highlight from a hearing that was supposed to be about Facebook’s new cryptocurrency Libra, praised the decision, calling it “one of the most basic, ethical decisions a company can make”.
The decision also puts pressure on other social networks, namely Facebook, and companies such as Google, to reconsider their own political ad policies. In his series of tweets announcing the upcoming ad ban, Dorsey indeed seems to take a direct swipe a Facebook, stating:
It’s not credible for us to say: “We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad ... well ... they can say whatever they want!"
This sentiment is seemingly shared by Montana’s Democratic governor (and current Democratic Presidential candidate) Steve Bullock, who simply tweeted: “Good. Your turn, Facebook.” Other Democratic Presidential candidates such as Andrew Yang, and former Presidential candidate, Senator and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also used the announcement to pressure Facebook.
Others, however, are rightfully more sceptical. The University of Utah’s Dr Shannon C. McGregor notes, for example, that the ad ban “disadvantages challengers and political newcomers”. In other words, as Dorsey himself predicted, McGregor and others argue a political ad ban will favour incumbents. McGregor argues, for example, that the ban will have little effect on President Donald Trump since “80 percent of Trump tweets end up in news stories, earning him massive amounts of media exposure”.
A Twitter employee argued that, while a ban on Islamic State propaganda had been largely successful, a similar ban on white supremacists content was not enacted because “on a technical level, content from Republican politicians could get swept up by algorithms aggressively removing white supremacist material".
At the same time, political ads are nowhere near as prevalent on Twitter as they are on Facebook. Campaign finance journalist Bill Allison references a recent earnings call from Twitter that indicated “political ads brought in less than $US3 million during the 2018 midterm elections. By contrast, Trump’s campaign spent $US5 million advertising on Facebook in the four weeks leading up to October 19”, figures backed by Twitter CFO Ned Segal. The Washington Post similarly notes that, since 2008, campaigns in the US “have spent $46 million on Facebook (and Instagram) and $30 million on Google (and AdSense). They’ve spent less than $2 million on Twitter”. While those figures exclude ads purchased through contractors and agencies, they nonetheless indicate a significant gap between political advertising on Twitter versus Facebook and Google. Twitter’s ad ban will therefore have minimal political impact on the platform, particularly for established political figures.
In short, while Twitter’s blanket ad ban may be “stupidly simple”, a change in political advertising policy would be unequivocally good news - if it had come from Facebook rather than Twitter. Such a ban on Twitter, however, will have few positive implications and may even exacerbate the real issues on Twitter.
Dorsey’s announcement expresses the belief that “political message reach should be earned, not bought”. However, Twitter has a consistent issue with automated accounts or bots, astroturfing, and sockpuppets, all of which can be used to enhance the spread of political messages. As Dr Elizabeth Dubois of the University of Ottawa argues, the absence of political ads could simply increase the use of these “other approaches to promoting content on the platform that are manipulative and less transparent”.
It’s relatively easy to purchase followers and set up bots, assuming one has the financial resources to do so. For example, the US firm Devumi “sells Twitter followers and retweets to celebrities, businesses and anyone who wants to appear more popular or exert influence online”. Their services include “amplification bots” that will automatically like and retweet anything their clients post on Twitter. In light of these services, Dorsey’s statement about money vs political reach is at best naïve, or at worst purposefully obtuse.
Twitter’s other major political issue is the prevalence of members of the so-called 'alt-right' (i.e. white extremist) on its platform. This point was emphasised just a few days after Dorsey’s announcement, when audio surfaced of 'alt-right' figure Richard Spencer angrily shouting profanity-laden white supremacist discourse after the murder of “Unite the Right” counter-protestor Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Twitter has refused to ban Spencer from the platform, prompting widespread criticism.
This event is just the latest example of Twitter’s problematic and oft-critiqued history with white extremists, one that seems like it will continue. In April, a Twitter employee argued that, while a ban on Islamic State propaganda had been largely successful, a similar ban on white supremacists content was not enacted because “on a technical level, content from Republican politicians could get swept up by algorithms aggressively removing white supremacist material”.
If Dorsey and Twitter were truly serious about the need to “focus [their] efforts on the root problems” of internet communications, they would be better off working to counter the plague of bots and the visibility of racist, supremacist discourse on their platform.