Twitter recently announced it would ban all political advertising on its platform, potentially including what it calls “issue ads” as well as paid tweets from political candidates. Twitter is still ironing out the details in their updated policy, and marketers are left scrambling to figure out exactly how this might affect their work and organizational objectives.
Our quick take: We definitely want platforms to think about how to improve their role in restoring the integrity of our democracy, and we think some radical change is required, but this feels more like a publicity stunt for Twitter — one that will have a negligible impact on Twitter’s bottom line, zero impact on the misinformation crisis we’re in, and a negative impact on the causes we care about.
I sat down with Matt Compton, our Director of Advocacy and Engagement, to talk about what this means for our clients and our work. Here’s where we landed:
The primary problem we’re facing is the spread of misinformation on social media to a wide audience, which is mostly shared organically. Until the platforms decide to tackle their organic problem, political ad reform is just rearranging deck chairs. Removing ads doesn’t remove the problem. Misinformation, automated content, and promoted content farms have influenced key political events without advertising. In fact, this move by Twitter may encourage even more troll farm accounts spreading harmful content to boost organic reach and engagement.
While Twitter says the intention of its policy change is to fight against online disinformation, the unintended consequences could be rather severe for advocacy organizations who use the platform to mobilize supporters around their cause. It is very possible that this policy change creates a reality where corporations are free to advance their point of view, while advocacy groups are left without an important avenue for advancing their values. As others have pointed out, nothing would stop an oil producer from saying, “We’re powering the American economy. Oil extraction is a net good.” But the guidance we have seen to this point explicitly calls out climate change as an issue that would be regulated under this policy.
On the other hand, maybe the oil producer’s ad would be banned under Twitter’s issue ads definition — which raises another problem: Will we ever have the clarity we need? Will the definition further disadvantage the disadvantaged? And how will it be enforced? We could potentially see corporations pushing through a political narrative under the guise of “business,” while advocacy groups are silenced because of their perceived inherent “politicalness.”
In more unintended consequences, Twitter’s ban limits campaigns’ interactions with hard-to-reach but highly engaged supporters who help candidates spread the word and get out the vote. Twitter is an increasingly important channel for growing grassroots support and mobilizing the base.
Twitter’s new policy creates a scenario in which Facebook and Google follow suit; they are already under pressure to do so. But that would not be a good move for our democracy. Let’s not forget the positive impacts of digital advertising: It engages more voters, particularly younger voters who can’t be reached through traditional methods. It drives voter turnout. It can level the playing field for challenger candidates or newcomers who need to build their platform. It allows candidates to connect more directly with voters.
If Facebook and Google also remove political advertising, it will have a set of second-order impacts that are hard to imagine.
With very little revenue at stake, this ban was a zero-risk way for Twitter to position themselves in stark moral contrast to Facebook (which recently decided to allow lies in political ads) and get some positive coverage. So what might Twitter have done to actually generate meaningful reform?
We need to address the rise of hate speech in digital channels, the outsized impact Facebook has on elections with its massive user base, and the fact that extremist content is rewarded and amplified by these platforms’ algorithms.
We are very much in favor of networks taking more ownership of the content that appears and is promoted on their platforms. A much better way to do this is to equip your users with the tools and measures to help report, regulate, and monitor content.
Moreover, we need a Digital Bill of Rights for Democracy. There have been forums to bring together networks, advertisers, policy makers, and country leadership — but nothing tangible has come from them (and apparently Facebook isn’t even showing up half the time). Twitter could have taken a leadership role in setting forth some principles around ownership and accountability, and pressuring other platforms to sign on.
Hopefully, at the very least, the conversation around Twitter’s ban can act as a catalyst for something bigger. But where is the government in all this? And when will we see true reform? (Election Day is one month away in the U.K. and less than one year away in the U.S.) Probably not soon enough.