Twitter Takes Accountability for Its Role in Maintaining Democracy

But now journalists must lobby Facebook to follow suit

On Wednesday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that the social media platform will no longer accept cash for political or advocacy advertising. The specifics of the policy will be published by Twitter on 15 November, and will be effective from 22 November.

It’s a significant move from Twitter, as it directly contradicts the view that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg have towards political advertising.

In a speech in Washington D.C. earlier this month, Zuckerberg said, “Given the sensitivity around political ads, I’ve considered whether we should stop allowing them altogether. From a business perspective, the controversy certainly isn’t worth the small part of our business they make up. But political ads are an important part of voice — especially for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers, and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise. Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media covers.”

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has also argued that the company accepts political ads because it wants to elevate free speech on its platform.

But the argument that Facebook champions the little guy is not supported by the basic premise of online advertising, which is that if you spend more you will be able to reach more people.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledged this phenomenon in Wednesday’s announcement:

Some of Facebook’s own employees recognised this premise in a letter sent to Zuckerberg and other company leaders, reported by The New York Times on 28 October. It said: “FB has stated that one of the benefits of running political ads is to help more voices get heard. However, high-profile politicians can out-spend new voices and drown out the competition.”

But the problems don’t end at political advertising being favourable to candidates with the most cash to burn.

Zuckerberg also got a lot of attention last week as he testified before Congress at a hearing about Facebook’s work with Libra cryptocurrency. Maxine Waters, the chair of the committee, questioned Zuckerberg over Facebook’s policy of not subjecting ads by political candidates to third-party fact-checking, and his response made it clear that he doesn’t feel this is within Facebook’s remit.

In marked contrast, Dorsey’s announcement on Wednesday recognised some of the challenges that online political advertisements — especially ones that contain inaccurate information — present to the principle of democracy.

We’ve already seen that candidates can use political advertising to spread disinformation — that is, information that is false and deliberately created to harm political opponents. During the Libra hearing, Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grilled Zuckerberg on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Cambridge Analytica used Facebook metadata to target voters in swing states with anti-Hillary messaging, which helped Trump win the presidency.

The fallout from Cambridge Analytica has raised big questions about data and social media regulation, and the extent to which social media users are able to distinguish between objective, fact-based reportage and political advertising campaigns.

Worryingly, a recent study by Loughborough University’s Online Civic Culture Centre found that Conservative voters and those with right-wing ideological beliefs are more likely to share false or inaccurate news than Labour voters or those with left-wing ideological beliefs, which means that the online ecosystem is skewed in favour of one end of the political system.

Social media therefore has the capacity to undermine the democratic process, as it makes one side of the political spectrum’s arguments more readily available to the electorate. Add that to the fact that those with the most cash will reach the most voters, and you’ve got a real problem.

There are solutions to these problems though; social media giants could subject political advertisements to more stringent fact checking, or they could cap campaign spending at a level that doesn’t freeze out new candidates from entering the fray. They could also do more to flag advertising — so that users don’t see a politically motivated advertisement and mistake it for non-partisan news.

But they’re unlikely to go to these regulatory extremes when political advertising accounts for such a small percentage of social media giant’s annual income.

Twitter’s new policy of a blanket ban on candidate ads and issue ads (which Twitter characterises as ads that advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance e.g. abortion or gay marriage) is an important step in the right direction. They’re not only saying no to allowing politicians to leverage their platform for their own gain, they’re also thinking one step ahead by including issue ads in the ban, as they’re clearly already thinking of ways that campaign managers may try and circumnavigate the candidate ad ban. We need more of this proactive thinking from social media giants.

Dorsey’s statement also acknowledged that social media networks are part of a much larger political advertising ecosystem. Indeed, there will still be coverage of elections on traditional broadcast channels such as television and radio, and the newspapers will still cover campaigns.

Traditional media outlets are not without their faults — with US and UK media being criticised for their biased approach to candidates (such as Fox News’ love affair with Donald Trump, and the Evening Standard’s depiction of former Labour leader Ed Miliband struggling to eat a bacon sandwich that became a symbol of his inability to lead the country).

But that’s not Twitter’s problem — it is doing what it can to reduce the chances that the next US President, or the next UK Prime Minister will be elected because targeted advertising campaigns on its platform have convinced a minority of the electorate to swing in favour of a candidate. And that’s a step in the right direction.

Journalists across the world need to respond to Dorsey’s lead and put the pressure on Facebook to follow suit in its approach to political advertising.

What do you think about Jack Dorsey’s announcement? Leave a reply below stating whether you agree or disagree that social media should ban political advertising.

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