Twitter Political Ad Ban: What’s at Stake?

Image by The Verge


Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced the decision of banning political ads on the platform on Thursday, October 31, 2019. The decision came months before the Presidential Elections 2020 in the US, after, what Dorsey implied, the realisation that social media platforms are capable of affecting the democratic decision of voters.

In a thread comprising of eleven tweets, he shared that the final policy around the decision will be shared on November 15, and the change will go into effect by November 22 giving current ad managers notice before the policy is enacted.

The announcement was made a week after Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg was questioned by the Member of US Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about Facebook’s political ads and their fact-checking policy on the platform, in one of the hearings that Zuckerberg was summoned for in the Congress.

During the hearing, while Zuckerberg shared that Facebook will continue to give political ads space on its platform, he confirmed that it will not fact-check these ads before they are targeted to the audience and does not have future plans to do so. However, he said that although independent fact-checking companies are involved in ensuring misinformation doesn’t get promoted on Facebook, if any ad based on false information is circulated, Facebook will only flag it as ‘false’ and will not take it down. Zuckerberg said that the decision was made after realising that everyone has the right to free expression, and Facebook will not violate it based on political inclination.

Twitter, with the recent announcement, opposes this and says that it is not about freedom of expression but about ‘paying for reach’. Dorsey wrote in a tweet that “political message reach should be earned, not bought”. The message implied that political content’s reach should be based on the organic opinions and views of the voters and not on who can pay for the most sophisticated ad targeting to influence these opinions, as seen with Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal during the Presidential Elections 2016 in the US and Vote Leave in the UK.

Freedom of Expression x Revenues

Freedom of expression remains one of the most discussed and often the most contested issue on online platforms. With governments around the world passing laws to regulate free speech on the internet, social media companies find it difficult to formulate a policy that upholds free speech without having to infringe someone else’s right to safety. When it comes to political commentary and advertising, the line seems to blur between where one’s right to free expression stops and hate speech, or more importantly, incitement, starts. Political ads pose this dilemma very often, more so when there’s a record of lack of transparency around where the ad and its content come from, and their attempts to influence democratic processes and ultimately people’s narratives.

Dorsey’s Twitter statement reflects this, and he agreed that internet advertising is powerful for commercial advertisers, but these ads also have a strong potential to influence voters while putting millions of lives at risk. He stated that Twitter wants to address the “root problems”, and not contribute towards them by making money out of them.

On the other hand, Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, echoes Mark Zuckerberg’s thoughts and says that while political advertisements make up to less than 1% of Facebook’s revenues, “the revenue is not worth the controversy, but what Mark said is that we believe in free expression, we believe in political speech, and ads can be an important part of that.” Sandberg adds, “Where we are really focused, and I think we’re leading is on transparency.”

Transparency in political ads

The argument for ‘transparency in political advertising’, or incidents where the content is intended to influence opinions, as taken by Facebook, serves little towards the public good. On the contrary, it takes the onus away from the social media companies and puts the responsibility of fact-checking on their users.

Average users on platforms like Facebook are operating in their own echo-chambers, and are likely to consume content without investigating its origins or the fact that it may be a part of a larger political campaign aimed at influencing discourse. The chances, thus, of average users fact-checking paid political content for factuality and accuracy are slim. 

In the current climate of political instability around the world, digital platforms hold considerable authority over how citizens see politics in their countries and beyond. Thus, by the virtue of wielding this enormous power, the major chunk of such responsibility should fall on these platforms, and they cannot be absolved of their role in ensuring that unpolluted, unbiased political content reaches their users.

The issue of ‘issue-ads’

While witnessing the actual blocking of political ads during the upcoming elections would be interesting as the policy develops and is adopted on Twitter, Dorsey also mentioned that ‘issue-ads’ will also be blocked. In August 2018, issue ads were defined by Twitter in a blogpost as,

  • Ads that refer to an election or a clearly identified candidate, or
  • Ads that advocate for legislative issues of national importance

The post explains ‘legislative issues’ with examples like, “topics such as abortion, civil rights, climate change, guns, healthcare, immigration, national security, social security, taxes, and trade.”

However, in response to a tweet inquiring what constitutes issue ads, Twitter policy head Vijaya Gadde said that their team is working on a final definition that will be shared with the policy on November 15.

Dorsey says that while his team considered blocking only the ads by political candidates, they realised that issue-ads could be a loophole to circumvent the new policy. This poses another challenge for advocacy groups that campaign for policy introductions or reforms, like campaigns to legalise abortion, to end gun violence, to introduce climate change policies, to counter gender-based violence, and others.

Conversations that relate to social change are often already very challenging to begin, and banning them in the ambit of political campaigning creates a considerable block in pushing for policy reforms.

When Twitter introduced its political ads policy in 2018, it gave exemption to news organisations from the need to be certified in order to promote tweets around issues as long as they don’t advocate for or against an issue, but just report on it. At the time of writing this article, it is unclear whether this exemption applies to the new development.

However, political content when reported on facts has the potential to be sided with even when it’s not intended to be endorsed or rejected. For instance, a news organisation reporting about incidents of gun violence will automatically be assumed to be in favour of gun control laws by those who oppose them. Twitter’s policy doesn’t specify whether this factual reporting will have supposed exemption under this new notification when and once it goes into effect.

Paid reach

A detailed analysis of a Twitter hashtag #ArrestAntiPakJournalists by Digital Rights Monitor found that while there were no ads involved in trending of this hashtag in Pakistan, it used organic tweets through either paid contributors or tapping into the sentiments of the people who interacted with it. This resulted in over 52,000 interactions being generated within a span of a few hours, making it the top trending hashtag in the country.

Instances like this are an indication of the possibility of circumventing the ban on political ads on Twitter and engaging other means to trend the content and reach the intended audience. Reaching the target audience by appointing social media influencers is regularly adopted by commercial advertisers to promote their products. It was used before the political ad mechanism was as sophisticated as it is today, and it has the potential of being used again given the counter strategies by various official actors. It’s only a matter of witnessing where the money would be placed for tweeting organically now that ads have been banned.

Twitter’s content moderation

The conversation then comes down to how effective the policy is in controlling the use of any online platform in meddling with democratic processes. Jack Dorsey mentioned that revenues don’t matter, even though one tweet pointed out that Twitter’s political ads revenue was at most approximately 3 million USD which makes up less than 0.5% of the total revenue as compared to Facebook’s approx. 350 million USD from these ads; indicating that Twitter has very little at stake with the introduction and enforcement of this policy.

And given Twitter’s rich history of being ineffective towards the implementation of its own policies, one could argue that this new political ad ban is only a PR stunt, especially in the light of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent statements on paid political ads on Facebook.

On October 7, 2019, Jason Koebler and Joseph Cox wrote for Vice,

“Twitter’s policy and engineering teams sometimes de-emphasize content and allow users to hide content that may be offensive but not explicitly against the platform’s terms of service. In doing so, Twitter says it gives more freedom to users, while critics argue it places more burden on users and more trust in software solutions (or in some cases, band-aids) to police hateful or otherwise violating content on the site.”

For instance, Twitter refused to take down Donald Trump’s tweet about North Korea where he said that the country “won’t be around much longer”. The social media company said that the decision was made because the tweet was ‘newsworthy’ and hence in the interest of the public, despite it evidently implying the incitement of violence or war between the US and North Korea. Given this particular incident and a history of selective enforcement of its policies, the same justification of political content being newsworthy could potentially be applied by Twitter when it comes to political ads.

On the other hand, Facebook follows a strict set of content regulation rules, along with setting up a dedicated team of thousands of content moderators worldwide. This extensive content moderation, although could be argued to be ineffective given Facebook’s larger user base and content generation than Twitter, left moderators who were exposed to extremist and disturbing content on Facebook on a daily basis, psychologically affected where many employees reported post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and many feared for their lives, according to an investigation by Verge earlier in 2019.

While Facebook has resumed political ads with no intention to fact-check them in the name of free speech and users’ right to information, Twitter who, for the longest time, has ignored conversations around content moderation, has imposed this ban in, what they imply, attempts to uphold the sanctity of democratic processes.

Moreover, Twitter was recently in the news for suspending over 200 accounts of Pakistani users for posting content criticising Indian atrocities in Kashmir. While there was no official public statement from Twitter about the suspension of these accounts, subsequent reports of more requests of account suspension indicated that the Indian government, or their representatives, were mass reporting the profiles of Pakistani users.

Twitter spokesperson told Dawn, “We believe people on all sides of an issue have a fundamental right to discuss them within the boundaries of our policies, which prohibit terrorism, hateful conduct, platform manipulation, and abuse. At Twitter no one is above our rules.”

And while these rules are ambiguous and their implementation is selective, all social media companies are susceptible to the pressure exerted on them by the governments of the countries they are based in. Users are yet to see whether Twitter’s new decision is truly unbiased and above any kind of coercion by the authorities.

What’s at stake

There are a lot of comparisons to draw when it comes to political content on the two most used social media platforms; Facebook and Twitter. In addition to the negligible political ad revenue of Twitter compared to Facebook, the platform hosts individuals who already have opinions stronger than those who occupy other social media platforms presumably making it less likely for them to be influenced by ads targeted at them only through Twitter. This could be one of the reasons why Twitter’s political ad revenue is less than that of Facebook.

Having said that, the users of Twitter are also much less in numbers than Facebook’s, making it less likely for political ad managers to lose a lot of activity with the new announcement. With the US Presidential Elections just months away, the implications – negative or positive – of this ban can only be ascertained when a) it’s implemented, and b) political ad campaigners accuse Twitter of siding with the opposing candidates in coming months.

Either way, the first step for Twitter is to impose the policy and have strong implementation around it.

Hija is the Senior Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She leads digital rights and internet governance advocacy at MMfD. Tweets at @hijakamran

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