Twitter’s chief executive officer has announced that his platform will ban political advertisements, saying that they represent new challenges to political discourse.
“This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach,” Jack Dorsey a wrote in a thread on his personal account on October 30 2019.
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.
Dorsey’s thread also listed the dangers paid political reach can wreak on social media:
Machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at 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.
According to Dorsey, Twitter will release its finalized policy on the matter by November 15 2019, and begin enforcement seven days later in order to give current advertisers notice. The section of the company’s website stating guidelines for political advertising was still active at time of publication.
Kit Walsh, a senior staff attorney with the advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said her group would be communicating with Twitter regarding the boundaries of the new policy.
“Limiting the influence of money on our elections is a laudable goal, and we are cautiously optimistic about the announcement,” she wrote. “Ad-based social media are intrinsically in the business of enhancing the power of money to influence people, so this is best understood as a kind of mitigation of harm.”
Ads supporting voter registration, Dorsey said, would be allowed to remain in effect. But ads related to political issues would also be subject to the ban. Prior to the ban on political ads, Twitter enacted a ban in August 2019 on ads from state-run media outlets.
“We’re well aware we’re a small part of a much larger political advertising ecosystem. Some might argue our actions today could favor incumbents,” he wrote regarding the new announcement. “But we have witnessed many social movements reach massive scale without any political advertising. I trust this will only grow.”
The announcement came after days of criticism directed toward Dorsey’s counterpart at Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg was hit with heavy questioning by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) regarding the fact-checking exemption during a hearing for not only allowing political advertisements on that platform but refusing to make ads placed by politicians and candidates subject to being rated in Facebook’s heavily-promoted partnership with fact-checking websites.
Despite that, Facebook took action against a California man, Adriel Hampton, who registered as a gubernatorial candidate in order to take advantage of that exemption.
Walsh told us that Dorsey’s move “probably was informed” by the increased scrutiny on Facebook.
“As challenging as it is to come up with a boundary between permissible ‘political’ ads and impermissible ‘other’ ads, it is exponentially more difficult and intrusive for a platform to make even more granular decisions about what kinds of ads to give favorable treatment to compared to others in terms of fact-checking or the political status of the person paying for the ad,” she said. “This move by Twitter will increase pressure on Facebook to follow suit.”
Update, 6:54 p.m. EST: Added comments from Kit Walsh of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.