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06/08/2020 The Communication Science magazine

Twitter’s Political Ads Ban: Problems Solved?

Twitter recently banned political ads from its platform. A first step in the right direction? But at a closer look, this seems not to be the problem at all.


Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey recently made a controversial announcement regarding the platform’s new policy of banning political ads. His soaring declaration “Freedom of speech is not the same as freedom of reach.” stirred both praises and debate across the political spectrum. This measure is Twitter’s latest effort to limit the influence of politicians on social media and demonstrate its accountability towards democracy. However, is the tech giant contributing to liberal democracy? Or is it solving any problems at all? And what is the problem? 

 

Twitter vs. Facebook: The war of Accountability

Twitter’s newest policy entails the ban of both candidate and issue ads, with specific categorization still in the works. Twitter’s actions have proved how media logic has triumphed over political logic, where social media corporations begin to take responsibility for its political content. Dorsey explained his decision as he tweeted: “While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics.” He further explained how the lack of action could have “significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle.” This bold initiative has received support from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Hillary Clinton after Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg insisted that the company would not fact-check political ads posted on its platforms. Zuckerberg argued: “I don’t think it’s right for private companies to censor political ads or the news” and how it is an “important component of free speech.”

a literal “watchdog” of politics

At a glance, it is apparent how Dorsey indirectly took a jab at its competitor through an impeccable PR strategy that bolsters Twitter’s image. Its attempt is rather revolutionary amidst the current climate as the social media site becomes a literal “watchdog” of politics. This viewpoint is reinforced by Bill Russo, spokesman for the election campaign of Joe Biden, who stated how it is “encouraging that, for once, revenue did not win out.” It was Twitter’s approach of showing how information falsehood can be, to a certain extent, monitored as it internalized the hegemony political ads can have over public discourse and opinion.

 

Twitter’s Ban: Is it problematic? 

Despite many users voicing their approval of the company’s new policy, Twitter still faces criticism and doubts regarding the implications the movement might necessitate. For starter, the definition of what constitutes political and issue ads have caused Twitter massive backlash after the company listed “climate change” as one of the topics it will moderate. This problem poses Twitter’s biggest struggle to categorize and determine the content that it will remove from its platform.

“yet another attempt by the left to silence Trump and conservatives.”

Furthermore, according to The Guardian, Twitter’s ban might gravely harm newly joined candidates whose political presence is limited, “[making] it harder for challengers and newcomers to break into the news cycle.” Not only does the ban put political underdogs at a disadvantage, but many critics have also pointed out how it does not remove “organic tweets” (tweets from individuals, specifically politicians). Statistics showed that paid tweets (political ads) don’t yield as much reach as organic tweets on this social media platform. This loophole undermines the effectiveness of Twitter’s ambitious regulations, as exemplified by how Donald Trump utilizes unpaid organic tweets as his trademark tools to cause public strife and division. Unsurprisingly, after Twitter announced their changes, the manager of Trump’s re-election campaign expressed how the ban is “yet another attempt by the left to silence Trump and conservatives.”

Another flaw that can potentially weaken Twitter’s position is the reality that it is not the main channel for political ads and how “smaller races turn to Facebook and Google for their digital advertising.” While Facebook gains 0.5% of its revenue from political ads (~$350 million), this number shrinks significantly for Twitter, with political ads only generating 0.1% of its revenue (~$3 million), as reported by TechCrunch. Although Twitter’s attempts are admirable, the minuscule proportion of political ads and insufficient management of “organic tweets” indeed raise concerns and questions about the ban’s impact on campaigners after all.

 

The real problem

And they have not yet addressed the main issue. According to TechCrunch, Twitter’s newest course distracts the public from the “structural problems baked into these attention-harvesting Internet platforms.” With the terrifying prominence of “filter bubbles” where social media companies can manipulate our information to make pre-selected personalization, Twitter’s plan isn’t fighting the biased system targeted towards its audience and their privacy.

media companies have proved to hold power and ability to persuade the public

Due to their designs, these social media companies (in)advertently set the agenda for political news and reinforce the audiences’ viewpoints for profit. In the worst case, these companies and their policies around custom ad targeting can “incentivize[s] extremist messages.” With this issue pointed out, social media platforms, including Twitter, are guilty of masquerading their control in shaping society’s political judgment as demonstrated by significant sociopolitical implications. Yet again, these media companies have proved to hold power and ability to persuade the public and control the narrative in favor of lawmakers that pay them to promote political agenda.

 

Where do we go from here?

Nonetheless, according to Wired, Twitter displays how Facebook’s answer to tightening political influence on its platform is not satisfactory and how media companies can strive to achieve more reasonable and moderate policies in its code of conduct. Dorsey’s decision has not solved the problem but regardless sparked public discussion of the ethical data use of social media companies. The ban raises the question of the level of accountability that social media platforms are required to accept in the digital age, where their influence can render the political atmosphere and social reality.

Cover: Shawn Campbell via Flickr

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