With the UK General Election campaign now underway, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s decision to ban political ads on his platform has a certain sense of timing about it.
Following his criticism of Facebook’s policy of not fact checking political posts on its platform, Dorsey upped the pressure on his counterpart Mark Zuckerberg by announcing that his firm would no longer run political ads.
Dorsey took to Twitter to state:
We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.
The decision has been taken for a number of reasons, he went on:
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.
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.
He cited “entirely new challenges to civic discourse” in the form of machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. - and all appearing with increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale:
These challenges will affect ALL internet communication, not just political ads. Best to focus our efforts on the root problems, without the additional burden and complexity taking money brings. Trying to fix both means fixing neither well, and harms our credibility.
For instance, 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!
Noting that Twitter had considered only banning ads from political candidates for office, he went on to argue that “issue ads” could be used to get around any such restrictions, so a wholesale outlawing of political ads is the best approach.
While Dorsey’s stand is the antithesis of Zuckerberg’s, he does have one viewpoint in common with his counterpart - a call for wider regulation:
We’re well aware we‘re a small part of a much larger political advertising ecosystem…we need more forward-looking political ad regulation (very difficult to do). 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.
Zuck on the spot
For his part, Zuckerberg was put on the spot shortly after Dorsey’s announcement when he was grilled on Facebook’s policy as part of a post-earnings conference call with analysts. He doubled down on previous comments:
We're about a year out now from the 2020 elections and we just announced that the systems we've built are so advanced that we proactively identified and removed multiple foreign interference campaigns coming from Russia and Iran. And we found ourselves in the middle of the debate about what political speech is acceptable in the upcoming campaigns.
But today I want to focus on talking about principles because from a business perspective it might be easier for us to choose a different path than the one that we're taking. So I want to make sure that everyone is clear about what we stand for and why we're making some of the decisions that we're making.
Now I gave a speech a couple of weeks ago about the importance of standing for voice and free expression. I believe strongly and I believe that history supports that free expression has been important for driving progress in building more inclusive societies around the world. And at times of social tension, there's often been an urge to pull back on free expression and that we will be best served over the long term by resisting this urge and defending free expression.
Right now the content debate is about political ads, should we block political ads with false statements or should be block all political ads? Google, YouTube and most Internet platforms run these same ads. Most cable networks run these same ads and of course national broadcasters are required by law to run them by FCC regulations. And I think that there are good reasons for this. In a democracy, I don't think it's right for private companies to censor politicians or the news.
And although I've considered whether we should not carry these ads in the past and I'll continue to do so, on balance so far I've thought that we should continue. Ads can be an important part of voice, especially for candidates and advocacy groups that the media might not otherwise cover, so that they can get their message into debates. And it's hard to define where to draw the line.
Would we really want to block ads for important political issues like climate change or women's empowerment?
Now instead I believe that the better approach is to work to increase transparency. Ads on Facebook are already more transparent than anywhere else. We have a political ads archive so anyone can scrutinize every ad that's run. You can see every message, who saw it, how much was spent, and that's something that no TV or print media does.
Acknowledging allegations that Facebook’s taking the no fact checking stand due to pressure from the US political right, Zuckerberg rejected the idea:
We face a lot of criticism from both progressives and conservatives. And frankly if our goal, we're trying to make either side happy, then we're not doing a very good job because I'm pretty sure everyone is frustrated with us…
A lot of people have told us, you've got to pick a side, or else both sides are just going to cause a lot of problems for you and sadly from a practical perspective, they may be right, but we can't make decisions that way.
Estimating that political ads will be less than 0.5% of revenue next year, and as such his policy isn’t influenced by money, he insisted:
Today is certainly a historical moment of social tension and I view an important role of our company as defending free expression.
Nonsense, says Dorsey:
This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle. It’s worth stepping back in order to address.
Leadership or censorship? Dorsey’s announcement inevitably sparked vocal endorsements of both characterisations.
In the US, Brad Parscale, manager of President Donald Trump's re-election campaign, called the move “a very dumb decision”, adding:
This is yet another attempt to silence conservatives, since Twitter knows President Trump has the most sophisticated online program ever.
Trump himself had yet to comment at time of writing, but the decision was welcomed by the Joe Biden camp, while former Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted:
This is the right thing to do for democracy in America and all over the world.
As Zuckerberg noted, 2020 is going to be “a very tough year” as “the candidates are going to criticise us” whatever happens.
While most attention immediately focused on the impact on next year’s US election, Twitter’s new rules will kick in just over halfway through the campaign, so there could soon be an interesting ‘test case’ around how much difference such a ban will make - although to date no British politician has used the platform as effectively as Trump or indeed Elizabeth Warren.
There will be some “exceptions” to the rule, according to Dorsey, which won’t be finalised until the middle of November. These will undoubtedly be attacked by critics as reflecting his own political views, so Twitter needs to be very careful about what those exceptions turn out to be.
But Dorsey’s announcement, timed for maximum impact, has put Facebook even further on the back foot and at little cost to him as political ads account for a tiny amount of Twitter’s revenue. I still find Zuckerberg’s policy an abdication of responsibility for lies and misinformation being delivered via his platform and adding to the pressure to justify Facebook’s policy is all to the good.