Twitter’s announcement that it will stop running political ads places the spotlight squarely on its rival, but what, if anything, does it solve?
“We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” its CEO, Jack Dorsey said last night. It’s a smart piece of opportunism from the small but influential platform. Beginning on the 22nd November, with a final policy to be issued on the 15th, political ads (certain issue ads like voter registration exempted) will stop.
Though small in comparison to Facebook, Twitter is popular and influential with politicians and journalists, meaning that it has a far higher profile than might be suggested by its 145 million “monetizable daily active users,” or users capable of seeing ads. Contrast that with Facebook’s daily total of 1.62 billion and a monthly figure of 2.45 billion. The announcement will have an impact far beyond Twitter's own reach.
Dorsey framed the decision in the broader context of open and connected dogma that has come to cause its main competitor so many problems, and explained it as such:
“This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach. 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.”
What’s clever about Dorsey’s big announcement is the implication of effectiveness in paid posts. Meanwhile, rival platforms, even if they are much bigger, will find themselves reverting to a now well-thumbed book of doublespeak as they talk down the effectiveness of their political advertising options. Dorsey is alive to this contradiction, and notes:
“It’s not credible for us to say: ‘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!’”
It’s been a complicated moment in the internet’s history, in which high-minded constitutional ideals – chief among them freedom of speech – have been invoked to defend some pretty sleazy political campaigning. Or, to echo the line apologists would deploy: social networks are not there to sort truthful messages from untruthful messages, but merely to profit from their broadcast.
When the presidential campaign of Joe Biden complained to both social networks (along with Alphabet’s YouTube), imploring them to take down political ads making false claims, Facebook’s head of global elections policy, Katie Harbath, responded (in a letter obtained by the New York Times) with those very ideals.
“Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is,” Harbath wrote.
As many others have pointed out, publicly-listed tech company decisions should never be read in terms of social mission but rather the manoeuvres that will protect the brand and, by extension, profit – even if Twitter’s profit margins remain slim.
Given Twitter’s Q3 earnings call revealed that the 2018 midterm elections brought the platform less than $3 million, it’s reasonable to suggest that Twitter’s forecast political ad revenue wasn’t looking stellar; it is, after all, a small fraction of the total. But the opportunity was there to stick the boot in – the bigger surprise is that Facebook, whose revenues from political ads are also minimal, has continued to expose itself.
“Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale,” Dorsey wrote.
“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.”
Effectively, trying to fix the wheels while hurtling down the motorway hasn’t worked. Will it affect anything?
Trump’s side thinks so. Brad Parscale was soon out on the attack, with a statement on …Twitter, calling the move “yet another attempt to silence conservatives, since Twitter knows President Trump has the most sophisticated online program ever known.” Characteristically, this communication, amid the hyperbole and bluster, also contains a misleading statement: “Twitter just walked away from hundreds of millions of dollars of potential revenue”. Given the midterm spend, which would presumably be spread further given that there are more races, this is pretty unlikely.
Most controversial statements made on Twitter by elected representatives don’t come in ad format but are posted organically and are then broadcast through the network either through criticism or support. Twitter’s move advocates for user choice. Will it change the reach of those messages? Probably not. Will it keep Twitter’s nose clean? Yes, but that was never the problem.