The relationship between social media and politics has always been a tricky one to navigate. Back in July, we wrote a blog on just this topic, tapping into advertising, fake news and the issue with character limits.
Now, as the digital giants come under increasing scrutiny for the power they offer in the political sphere, Twitter has announced a ban on all political ads. Why have they decided to implement the ban, what has the response been, and how will this affect the future of digital advertising?
CEO Jack Dorsey announced the ban in a Twitter thread, stating: “A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money”
The ban comes as there are increasing concerns over how social media advertising can influence our decision making patterns and potentially interfere in democratic processes. Since online advertising offers the potential to ‘micro-target’ specific users, advertisers can display certain messages to specific demographics without giving access to the full picture.
This is likely a move to differentiate Twitter as the ‘good guy’ of social media, compared with a platform like Facebook which has been heavily criticised for its handling of political advertising during the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The concern Dorsey raises is not about offering a platform for those from all political walks of life, but rather the fact that paying more money shouldn’t impact democratic elections or force political decisions on people. Advertising is an incredibly useful tool in commercial markets, but many feel that it has no place in politics or democracy and it’s important to separate the two.
While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions.
— jack 🌍🌏🌎 (@jack) October 30, 2019
The full details of what exactly will be included in the policy are due to be released tomorrow, 15th November.
Many have hailed this ban as a great step towards preventing the spread of micro-targeted and biased political messaging and maintaining democratic integrity. Often, adverts can even be difficult to differentiate from a ‘normal’ post which means that people don’t realise that these are paid targeted messages rather than organic posts created as a result of ‘free expression’.
Former Secretary of State and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has applauded the decision in a Tweet, writing: “This is the right thing to do for democracy in America and all over the world. What say you, @Facebook?”
This is the right thing to do for democracy in America and all over the world.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 30, 2019
Another benefit of banning political advertising is that it will stop the ‘two-faced’ nature of many of these campaigns. One of the concerns around political adverts is that they will tell different stories, make different promises and shame different people depending on who they are talking to.
Rather than getting the full picture, these social media users will be encouraged to believe only one angle or one snapshot of a particular political candidate, party or organisation. In other words, it allows candidates to represent different platforms to different demographics.
The overall aim of banning political ads is to restore an equal playing field when it comes to campaigning and to prevent voters from being misled and misinformed on certain issues. Many people believe this is a progressive and positive decision by Twitter.
However, as always, there are two sides to this particular coin. Some have suggested that a ‘blanket ban’ on political ads will prevent social justice organisations and activists from spreading their messages. At the same time, it will allow commercial organisations (who aren’t necessarily politically unaffiliated) to continue using paid adverts.
2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote in a Tweet: “Twitter’s 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.”
Twitter’s 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. https://t.co/B9RtX7hC5g
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) November 5, 2019
Dorsey did anticipate these concerns in his initial announcement and explained the reasoning behind a total ban: “We considered stopping only candidate ads, but issue ads present a way to circumvent”. In other words, having only certain criteria for the ban, rather than a full political ban, would open up loopholes and be harder to regulate.
He suggests that social justice organisations don’t necessarily need to rely on paid ads, as they can spread their message organically on social media, writing: “we have witnessed many social movements reach massive scale without any political advertising. I trust this will only grow.” Twitter have also assured users that adverts which encourage voter registration will still run.
In an opinion article in The Guardian, political communications researcher Shannon C. McGregor writes that, despite being “a great PR move for the company,” the ban is “unnecessarily severe and simplistic”. There are concerns that the total ban eliminates the various nuances involved in political advertising, including the difference between those which are spreading certain persuasive political messages and those which are intended to mobilise supporters or build a following.
McGregor continues by discussing how “Twitter’s ban on political ads disadvantages challengers and political newcomers.” She argues that it won’t have a significant impact on established political names, but instead will have a negative impact on those who are just starting out in the political world and are looking to make a name for themselves and challenge the establishment.
Related article: Social Media and Politics: A Dangerous Relationship?
Many have viewed this move by Twitter as a dig at Facebook. And they’re probably right – Dorsey’s announcement came just a week or so after Mark Zuckerberg seemed to rule out a ban on Facebook political advertising in a speech at Georgetown University. Initially, therefore, it didn’t seem as though Facebook would be making any moves towards banning adverts.
However, there are now reports that Google and Facebook are considering a ban on ‘micro-targeted political ads’. As mentioned earlier, one of the major concerns with political advertising is that it allows candidates to display highly specific messages to a select number of people.
As we’ve seen, there are both positive and negative takes on Twitter banning political ads. Dorsey himself acknowledges that a complete ban might be seen as extreme, but it at least eliminates the paid-for spreading of misinformation.
In an ideal world, we’d have something in between Facebook and Twitter’s policies, where there are easily enforced restrictions on micro-targeting and misinformation. We can hope this is something that the big advertisers can bring into place, but with the increasing sophistication of AI and the presence of ‘deep fakes’, it may be harder than ever to have a policy which works for everyone without certain political adverts slipping through the net.