Twitter on Wednesday announced a blanket ban on all political and issue-based advertising across its site, with CEO Jack Dorsey stating in a series of tweets that the company had decided to do so because “paying for reach” forces “highly optimized and targeted political messages on people.”
Dorsey added that political and issue ads present challenges including “machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes” that can be deployed rapidly and at scale. That “has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle,” Dorsey added.
The Twitter CEO also took a shot at Facebook, arguing that the competitor’s policy of allowing politicians to openly lie in paid advertisements was tantamount to a wink-wink, nudge-nudge approach towards monetized disinformation. Twitter’s updated policy will be shared on Nov. 15 and go into effect by Nov. 22, Dorsey added—just a few weeks shy of a year before Election Day 2020.
Dorsey concluded by arguing that targeted political and issue-based advertising has little impact on “free expression,” but is instead about artificially boosting specific messages and astroturfing the political process. (Hundreds of Facebook employees sent a letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg that was published in the New York Times this week that similarly argued “Free speech and paid speech are not the same thing.”)
Facebook has insisted its own stance is not about money, and it’s true that eye-popping spending in the growing political ad market pales in comparison to its overall advertising revenue ($17.38 billion in Q3 2019, according to figures released on Wednesday.) But the platform has also become hypersensitive to unrelenting criticism from conservatives obsessed with claims of liberal bias at the company, driven in large part by the president, one of Facebook’s biggest political ad buyers. Banning political ads altogether would also force the company to resolve the question of what a political ad is, which as Recode noted, could generate just as much headache and have a potentially farther-reaching impact on revenue when it comes time to decide whether, say, NRA or union ads are political.
Twitter has also stumbled hard over questions related to politics, such as its rules exempting world leaders from all but a tiny subset of its terms of service. However, Twitter is far smaller than Facebook (it’s struggling to reach $1 billion in annual revenue) and stands to lose peanuts on political and issue-based ads (less than $3 million during the 2018 midterms), so it was probably an easy call for Dorsey to shove that knife in Zuckerberg’s back... even it’s a rather small knife.
This, of course, does not mean that Twitter’s numerous other issues such as its white supremacist problem and swarms of bots and sock accounts are any less frustrating. Critics, such as the Intercept’s Ryan Grim, have also argued that banning political ads is more likely to harm grassroots organizers who rely on cheap digital tools than it is large and powerful interests. But it’s also somewhat surprising to see Dorsey, who is known more for being given to faux-philosophical gobbledygook than taking action on critics’ concerns, take the initiative on this one.
Anyhow, Russian state-owned media company RT seems pretty mad about this, so god knows we at least we can all have a good chuckle at that in these trying times.