Twitter pulls the plug on political ads, Facebook not keen to follow suit

Twitter Inc Photo: Reuters
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”, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said early on Thursday while discontinuing political ads from the microblogging platform globally.

Dorsey said the company would share the final policy by November 15, and will start enforcing it from November 22, to provide advertisers a notice period.

Political ads on social media platforms have been a growing cause for concern globally, especially since reports of foreign interference in the 2016 US Presidential elections surfaced. India also cracked down heavily on advertising content placed by political parties in the run up to the General Elections this year. 

Vipul Mudgal, director at advocacy firm Common Cause, said once Twitter releases the full policy, things would become clearer. “I want to see if their policy is US oriented and how much of it applies to countries like India. I say so because the Indian election scene is more complicated. There are proxy ads and surreptitious ads, which political parties place indirectly. There is also a huge role of the black money in our elections. Even (state and central) governments place laudatory and self congratulatory ads in the name of ‘achievements’ or things like malaria eradication or Swachh Bharat which are aimed at promoting one party or one leader,” he said.

Facebook, Google and Twitter have publicly started declaring political ad spend on their platforms for several markets, including India. 

The news garnered support from several quarters even as many users tagged Facebook in replies to Dorsey’s tweets, asking the firm to relook its policy on political ads, considering allegations of election interference the platform faced after the Cambridge Analytica incident. 

Facebook said though it would up transparency around political ad spending, it would not follow in Twitter’s footsteps. Addressing the most common allegation that it is allowing political ads for money, Zuckerberg said the firm estimates that ads from politicians will be less than 0.5 per cent of the total revenue next year. 

“The reality is that we believe deeply that political speech is important and should be able to be heard, and that’s what’s driving us,” Zuckerberg said.

Dorsey called for the need to have a “more forward-looking political ad regulation” worldwide, but admitted that it was a difficult task. 2016 US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted: “This is the right thing to do for democracy in America and all over the world.”

Shashi Tharoor, Congress leader and head of the Parliamentary Committee on IT, said, “It is a welcome step on the part of Twitter to end paid political advertising, which always gave an edge to the better-funded parties, usually those in power. If you want to get your political messages across on Twitter, you need to attract followers, not buy them.” 

Twitter’s Chief Financial Officer Ned Segal said the move would have little financial impact. “Since we are getting questions: This decision was based on principle, not money,” he said. “As context, we’ve disclosed that political ad spend for the 2018 US midterms was (less than) $3 million.”

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