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'It opens a new front that regulators can attack': can Twitter's political ad ban force Facebook's hand?


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

October 31, 2019 | 6 min read

Twitter's move to ban political ads globally from 22 November has been met with applause in political and advertising circles and has put a spotlight on Facebook's ongoing willingness to accept political ads despite increasing scrutiny.

On Wednesday (30 October), Twitter chief exec Jack Dorsey admitted that paid political ads in digital force "highly optimized and targeted political messages on people" and that these messages are "compromised by money".

Ahead of the proposed UK general election in December and the US presidential election in 2020, Twitter has removed itself from any impending controversy without standing to lose much revenue. The Washington Post reports that political ad spending on Twitter amounted to less than $3m during the 2018 midterm elections. In the UK, during the last election in 2017, UK political parties only spent £59k on Twitter ads according to the Electoral Commission. Facebook, however, is more of a political ad beneficiary.

Many have praised Twitter for acknowledging how dark money, electioneering, misinformation and unscrutinised hyper-targeted messages have disrupted democracy.

"Rather than waiting for regulation, which moves much more slowly, Twitter has headed off controversy and public distaste for political advertising before two big elections," said Andre Van Loon, senior research and insight director at We Are Social.

2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton branded it as the "right thing to do for democracy" while Cambridge Analytica scandal-breaking journalist Carole Cadwalladr said Dorsey's statement destroys Facebook’s arguments about paid free speech. Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and an ex-Google design ethicist said it helps "protect the increasing frailty of democracies".

Neville Doyle, chief strategy officer of Town Square, questioned whether Twitter had "put considerations for society ahead of considerations for its shareholders... to combat a very 21st-century problem" in taking such a stance.

Predominantly right-leaning organisations have complained about the ad ban so far, he noted. Chief among them Russia Today, the Russian state broadcaster that was banned from advertising on Twitter and Facebook after its 2016 US election spend was branded as socially and politically "divisive".

But Doyle conceded that until social platforms can determine some level of quality control around political advertising, the only unbiased way to deal with this issue is to take it away from all parties. "Could this be the start of social platforms starting to take responsibility for problems that they have created?" he suggested.

Facebook faceoff

The move by Twitter to cast out political ads has put significant pressure on market leader Facebook, whose chief Mark Zuckerberg has often repeated the fact it spends more on safety than Twitter’s entire revenue.

Facebook says 0.5% of its ad revenue comes from politicians spending on its ads platform. It earned $66bn in the 12 months ending Q3 2019.

That Facebook has become a key advertising medium in the lead up to elections has caught the attention of regulators. Zuckerberg stuttered in congress when he was probed on Facebook's political ad policy, which critics say allows for misinformation to be spread without consequence. He argued: "In a democracy, I don't think it's right for private companies to censor politicians or the news, and although I've considered whether we should not carry these ads in the past, and I’ll continue to do so, on balance so far I've thought we should continue."

To prove how problematic the system is, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren ran false ads on the platform to showcase shortcomings."

Twitter's decision to ban political ads has put Facebook in the spotlight argued Christiana Cacciapuoti, vice president of partnerships at MadHive and executive director of AdLedger.

"This opens up a new front that regulators can attack," she said. "Not only can lawmakers argue that Zuckerberg is monopolising access to consumers by buying up anyone who gets a big enough user base to be a threat, but Facebook is also weaponizing that access by failing to differentiate between free speech and paid ads."

She suggested we'll see more activism coming from the tech industry's rank and file in the coming months. But others are less sure that Facebook will succumb to pressures.

“Unless there’s widespread outrage from its users, Facebook doesn’t look to be changing its stance any time soon," said Steve Kuncewicz, partner at BLM law firm and specialist in social media law. "There’s no indication that YouTube will either, given that its already blocking out advertising space for candidates in the 2020 US election.”

What now?

But Twitter's paid-ad ban does not mean we'll see any less campaigning on Twitter. Samir Patel, chief innovation strategist, Blue State, the agency that helped see president Obama elected in 2008 and the early days of social media, claimed that Twitter made up only a small part of the digital campaigning mix.

"Digital campaigning is in an unregulated black box with illegal spending such as in the UK referendum," Patel said. Though Patel branded Twitter's ban as a positive step in the discussion it falls shy of a Digital Bill of Rights for Democracy that would take the impetus to protect elections out of the hands of private companies.

We Are Social's Andre Van Loon, believes the move may backfire, and predicts that more political ad spend will enter Facebook's ecosystem this election cycle. Dark social sharing of paid for political messages could be the next big thing, via WhatsApp and Instagram Stories.

Meanwhile, Twitter still has problems. In particular, it still hosts hate speech figures like former KKK grand wizard David Duke. It is also under constant scrutiny for its white supremacy problem.

Nonetheless, now Twitter has fired shots ahead of a UK and US election, the industry is bracing to see if Facebook holds its nerve in the coming months - or whether its practises will be again linked to more bad players in democracy.

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