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Why Twitter is right to ban political ads

By Tom Jarvis, Founder and managing director



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November 4, 2019 | 6 min read

To those arguing that Twitter is wrong or misplaced to ban political advertising on the platform - wake up! We are in the grip of a mass misinformation shit-storm and social platforms are only fanning the flames by allowing politicians to promote their untruths. Let’s get real.

Twitter political ad

Twitter playing its Trump Card

Late on Wednesday 30 October Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter broke the news in a tweet that they are banning all political advertising on the platform. By doing so Twitter has made big news this week and put the ball very much in Facebook’s court to now follow suit.

This comes after months of calls in the US for the platform to stem the tide of hate, even reaching the President with Democrat nominee Kamala Harris penning a letter to Jack Dorsey asking for Trump to be banned over what she described as ‘blatant threats’ adding "we need a civil society, not a civil war".

Twitter, needing some good PR, played a card it knew that Facebook couldn’t trump, putting the pressure onto Mark Zuckerberg and the leadership team at Facebook.

Just last month Facebook was embroiled in yet another scandal this time involving its policy on lying in adverts. Facebook had for a time placed a ban on 'deceptive, false or misleading content' but quickly back-tracked to a narrower view falling back on third-party, fact-checking organisations (often run as non-profits) to debunk false claims in ads. These often under-staffed and resourced organisations have been inundated with claims meaning that often only the most viral of content is being checked.

The truth in the numbers

Facebook’s stance, as a spokesperson recently stated, is that they “don’t believe that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates. Nor do we think it would be appropriate to prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience”. That is code for we make a ton of money from political advertising on our platform, estimated to be somewhere in the region of $300-400M over the next year from political figures alone, and therefore don’t want to ban them.

This is in stark contrast to Twitter, whose chief financial officer, Ned Segal, tweeted that the company had made less than $3 million from political ads during the 2018 US mid-terms and according to their own transparency report only had 21 advertisers across the entirety of the EU during the parliamentary elections this year.

Facebook, on the other hand, has taken more than £300,000 in the last week, from the top 10 British political advertisers.

A good news day

In need of some good news, Twitter has benefited from an outpouring of positive sentiment following Jack Dorsey’s announcement, the original tweet from @jack has had over 400K Likes and 100K Retweets alone.

As well as a hugely positive response online, the company has received some much needed positive PR and received vocal support from a range of campaign groups and organisations in the US and across the world including the Open Knowledge Foundation. Catherine Stihler, chief executive of the think-tank said Twitter’s move was ‘very welcome’ adding that “it is imperative that we do not allow disinformation to blight this year’s UK general election, forthcoming elections across Europe, and next year’s US presidential election.”

The day after Twitter’s announcement, screenwriter and playwright Aaron Sorkin took to the New York Times to write a passionate op-ed addressed directly to Mark Zuckerberg, attacking Facebook’s position. He stated it “isn’t defending free speech, it’s assaulting truth.”

Sorkin goes on to say, directly to Zuckerberg “...this can’t possibly be the outcome you and I want, to have crazy lies pumped into the water supply that corrupt the most important decisions we make together. Lies that have a very real and incredibly dangerous effect on our elections and our lives and our children’s lives.”

This position as the anti-Facebook is a strong place for Twitter to be as it looks to continue to grow users and carve it its own niche against the behemoth of Facebook and its supporting app platforms.

This is clearly the sort of press Jack Dorsey and other senior figures at Twitter were hoping for, as he signed off his tweet thread with a very direct dig at Facebook “A final note. 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.”

Over to you, Zuck…

Tom Jarvis, founder and managing director, Wilderness


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