In a series of Tweets (because 240 characters isn’t enough for him), Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that Twitter will no longer accept political ads, as of November 22. That includes ads from candidates and issue ads. Twitter will continue to accept ads that encourage voter registration.
Dorsey said that “political message reach should be earned, not bought” adding “some might argue our actions today could favor incumbents, but we have witnessed many social movements reach massive scale without any political advertising.
Dorsey has a point. While national political campaigns spend millions on TV ads, a strong candidate or a compelling issue with a strong following can quickly galvanize support. Look no further than the 2016 presidential election. Hillary Clinton’s campaign and supportive PACs raised a total of $1.2 million compared with just under $648 million by Donald Trump and his allies. Yes, even though Clinton won the popular vote, Trump won where it counted – in the electoral college. I’m no political scientists but I have a feeling that Trump’s passionate supporters made a big difference in allowing a political novice to outmaneuver a political veteran.
The Trump campaign also made effective use of social media, including Twitter and Facebook, and Trump continues to use Twitter in an almost constant stream of messaging to shore up his base. That may change in 2020 now that the Trump campaign is rolling in cash and depending on whom he runs against and whether that candidate can whip up enthusiasm.
Of course, there will be plenty of TV advertising, especially in swing states, so, regardless of what Twitter and other social media companies do, advertising will continue to play a major role in politics.
But taking ads off of social media does make some sense because of how easy they are to abuse – or at least were in 2016. It has long been illegal for foreigners to buy U.S. political ads, but there was at least one case when an ad was paid for in Russian currency (rubles), which is a pretty good clue that it wasn’t coming from within the United States.
There were other examples of Russian and other foreign ad buys and there are plenty of ads with false information, most recently a Trump campaign ad that displayed a video that falsely implied that former Vice President Joe Biden had bragged about offering Ukrainian officials a billion dollars to drop a case against his son. The Biden campaign asked Facebook to remove that ad, but it refused. Katie Harbath, Facebook’s head of global elections policy wrote to the Biden campaign “our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is.”
In a perfect social media world, Harbath would be right. In an open court of public opinion, people could easily push back against a candidate’s or candidate supporters’ false claims. But it’s not an open court because Facebook’s advertising algorithms target ads to people who are most likely to positively respond to them.
So, most people who saw that false ad were probably already on Trump’s side and likely to approve of the message, perhaps unaware of its lack of truthfulness. And this isn’t a one-sided issue. Liberal-minded Facebook users are much more likely to see ads for liberal candidates and causes than their conservative brethren.
The same is true with posts from users. People have a tendency to run in packs, and if you’re on the far right or far left, there’s a good chance that many if not most of the people you friend or follow have similar views. If so, you may be living in a thought bubble that not only reinforces your opinions but feeds you with “facts” that verify your view of the world, regardless of whether those “facts” are true.
TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based Bytedance, has also banned political ads in the United States. Last month, Blake Chandlee, TikTok’s vice president of global business solutions, blogged, “Any paid ads that come into the community need to fit the standards for our platform, and the nature of paid political ads is not something we believe fits the TikTok platform experience. To that end, we will not allow paid ads that promote or oppose a candidate, current leader, political party or group, or issue at the federal, state, or local level – including election-related ads, advocacy ads, or issue ads.” TikTok’s reasons are different from Twitter’s. TikTok likes to encourage what Chandlee called a “light-hearted and irreverent feeling that makes it such a fun place to spend time.”
Beyond the issue of targeting or living in a social media world of like-minded friends and followers, there are broader concerns that Dorsey tweeted about as he announced Twitter’s policy change “Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.” He also tweeted “Ad transparency requirements are progress, but not enough. The internet provides entirely new capabilities, and regulators need to think past the present day to ensure a level playing field.”
Dorsey is right. The power of algorithms and the nature of social media make it different from other platforms like newspapers, TV and radio. Both the tech industry and government regulators need to put some careful thought into how social media can play a positive role in our Democracy without being gamed and manipulated in ways that thwart the Democracy. There may be a place for ads on social media, but not until we re-think how they are being used.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit internet safety organization that receives support from Facebook and Twitter.
Published at Sun, 03 Nov 2019 08:00:03 +0000