Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive officer, chief executive officer, made a sensational announcement on Wednesday evening. The micro-blogging social platform has decided to stop accepting political ads starting November 22. It will, however, continue to accept public service ads, such as ads encouraging voters to register and exercise their franchise. Mr Dorsey has explained the rationale: Twitter has come to the conclusion that the reach of political messaging should be earned, not bought. Paid advertising forces highly optimised and targeted political messages onto people. The significant risk is that it can influence votes that affect millions of lives.
Mr Dorsey has said this is about “paying for reach”, not free expression, and that paid reach has “significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be able to handle”. Machine-learning-based optimisation of messaging can micro-target voters with unchecked misleading information at an overwhelming scale.
Twitter is, of course, giving up revenue since it would miss out on some share of internet political advertising through the next year, with US presidential elections, the ongoing Brexit drama, UK general elections, and elections in several European nations. Online advertising for the 2020 US presidential elections alone might run in excess of $1.2 billion. Although Twitter says this ban will not have a significant impact on the platform’s bottom line, the share price dropped by about 4 per cent following the announcement.
Mr Dorsey also sarcastically said: “We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut (sic) if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad … well ... they can say whatever they want!” This appears to be a shot across the bow at Facebook, whose CEO Mark Zuckerberg said recently that his firm would continue to carry misleading or false messages in paid political ads, without fact-checking.
Donald Trump's re-election campaign has already taken advantage of the Facebook no-check policy by running ads with false claims that the Democratic presidential hopeful, Joe Biden, bribed Ukrainian officials. A similar ad campaign targeted Mr Biden on Twitter but that will be pulled out after the ban. Senator Elizabeth Warren, another Democratic presidential hopeful, has highlighted the dark side of Facebook’s policy, by running ads on FB that claim Trump has been “given free rein to lie on Zuckerberg’s platform — and to pay Facebook gobs of money to push out the lies”.
This leads into a debate, which has great relevance to the future of political campaigning. Facebook says that it does not believe a social network should be in the business of judging the truth of political claims and it stands to gain significant revenue from this stance. Hence, while Facebook will fact-check normal content, it will not fact-check paid political ads. This allows advertisers to put out lies or misleading information and micro-target voters, maybe using unethical means to harvest their data, a la the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Given the known impact that online advertising had on the Brexit referendum, the 2016 US presidential elections, the last UK elections, and, perhaps, the Indian general elections of 2019, there are serious problems with this model of ignoring truth in political advertising. It is entirely possible that an advertiser, including quite possibly one backed by a foreign government, can influence voters with dubious online messaging.
Facebook and other online platforms have started to introduce transparency in the form of releasing lists of advertisers. But this vetting process is only a beginning and it doesn’t prevent an advertiser from making false claims. Interestingly, most platforms, online or otherwise, do insist on some degree of truth in advertising when it comes to products (such as consumer electronics or automobiles) or services (such as apps and financial services). While Twitter’s move is a beginning, it leaves plenty of room for voter-manipulation by other means, such as using fake ids and bots to amplify false messages. It also gives incumbents who have already built a large online presence a big edge.