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Twitter’s political ad ban is a step too far in the wrong direction

Twitter’s political ad ban is a step too far in the wrong direction

Twitter’s political ad ban is a step too far in the wrong direction
November 15
12:10 2019

On Oct. 30, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced from his account that Twitter will ban all political advertising from its site, justifying that they believe “political messages reach should be earned, not bought.” Other reasons were given, citing potential misinformation and a desire to not spread that information simply because they were paid to.

A simplified rundown was given by another Twitter employee: Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety Lead Vijaya Gadde, who stated ads “that refer to an election or a candidate, or…advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance (i.e. climate change, healthcare, immigration, national security, taxes).” Not much more clarification was given.

It should also be noted that this announcement came about a week after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s questioning by Congress, in which he confirmed Facebook would continue to allow misleading ads. Clearly, this rule change has nothing to do with that.

These new rules are still undergoing development and won’t go into effect until Nov. 15. To get serious, Twitter’s new move is an incredibly blatant reaction to that and comes across more like an attempt to get brownie points. I don’t think I’ve seen such a blatant swipe at a competing company in a long time.

What I do know is that political advertisements differ between Twitter and Facebook, a company that is currently under heavy fire, which has resulted in questionings by Congress for its handling, or lack thereof, for ads giving false information. (In fact, if you want to know more about the widely-reported questioning by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, our own  Megan Hernandez had a superb take on it, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s questioning of Mark Zuckerberg is vital in the age of fake news“). 

Writing for The Atlantic, former Google advertising employee Jeffrey Webb gave multiple examples of how broad and unspecific the guidelines could end up being. “If a newspaper promotes an op-ed by a columnist arguing that President Donald Trump is unfit for office, is that a political ad? If a movie studio run by a left-wing billionaire pays for ads promoting [an idealized biography] about an up-and-coming progressive candidate, is that a political ad?”

He gives a few more, while also noting, like Dorsey, how the policy might add to the number of hurdles those wishing to challenge political incumbents face during election cycles. After finishing this article, I highly recommend reading Webb’s own piece, “I sold Political ads for Google. Banning Them Won’t Work.” It runs down some of the inside decision making on political advertising and is an informative read in it’s own right.

A more prominent critic of the policy change is none other than Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren. She tweeted that the “new ad policy will allow fossil fuel companies to buy ads defending themselves and spreading misleading info — but won’t allow organizations fighting the climate crisis to buy ads holding those companies accountable. We need accountability.”

She would add another criticism to the original tweet, but that first one received a response from Dorsey, who tweeted a generic response: “We haven’t announced our new rules yet. They come out 11/15. Taking all this into consideration.”

At time of writing, we still haven’t been told if anything else concrete has nailed that.

If Twitter wants any real positive change to come from this, instead of implementing an extreme measure as to upset neither the left nor the right, they need to implement a rigorous fact-checking policy. If an ad is using blatantly false information or attacks, it doesn’t go on the platform. If it’s truthful, up it goes.

I’m aware there are more intricacies to these types of advertisements, especially in the age of hyper-personalized targeting, but it’s possible. To refer back to Webb’s article, he suggested that “the companies should produce more detailed information about who is seeing which ads and make it more accessible to outsider observers.”

This doesn’t seem that hard, and I obviously could be wrong there, but it feels like something that should be an outright requirement for every single social media platform with ads.

Again, these rules go up soon, and at the time of publication, there aren’t many specifics to them. I’m not sure I have much reason to be optimistic when it comes to Twitter, either, and the lack of solid information in the weeks since doesn’t inspire confidence.

Congress, meanwhile, has been toying with regulating political advertising for a long time, with 2017’s Honesty Ads Act being reintroduced earlier this year. I’m not sure how either that or the new policy will turn out.

We’ll see.

Featured Illustration: Jae-Eun Suh

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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