If you’ve ever wondered about the value of having multiple social networks competing to develop the best products and policies, Wednesday offered us a clear example.
Facebook is now three weeks into a controversy over whether (and how) it ought to regulate political ads, and the lies those ads will inevitably sometimes contain. Lots of folks (including some Facebook employees
) have proposed ideas, including banning political ads from the platform altogether.
Today, Jack Dorsey took their suggestion — for Twitter. In a thoughtful thread, Dorsey laid out his case for banning both issue ads and campaign ads. Notably, he honed in on two things that make social ads unique: their speed, and the way they can target small niche communities at scale.
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.
“Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse,” Dorsey tweeted
. machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.”
Twitter was not the first platform to ban political ads. It was preceded by LinkedIn, Pinterest, and TikTok
, among others. Each of those sites made the calculation that whatever benefits are to be gained from politicians paying to reach voters, they are outweighed by the drawbacks.
Those services are all significant in their own way. But none is a true hotbed for political commentary. Twitter, on the other hand, is the beating heart of political discourse in the United States, and was swarmed by more than 50,000 Russian accounts
in 2016 as part of that country’s interference with the US presidential election.
Some have noted that Twitter had little to lose in eliminating political ads, since it makes little revenue from them
— less than $3 million. Others noted that political ads on Twitter have never seemed to be particularly effective at influencing voters, raising questions about whether banning them would have any practical effect on the election.
Yael Eisenstat, who once led Facebook’s elections Integrity operations team for political advertising, tweeted:
FINALLY, a CEO willing to admit this is not about free speech, it is about profiting off of amplifying lies and the dangerous targeting tools that allow this anti-democratic b.s. to infect our society.
“Twitter just walked away from hundreds of millions of dollars of potential revenue, a very dumb decision for their stockholders,” Parscale said in a statement. “Will Twitter also be stopping ads from biased liberal media outlets who will now run unchecked as they buy obvious political content meant to attack Republicans? This is yet another attempt to silence conservatives, since Twitter knows President Trump has the most sophisticated online program ever known.”
(Again, based on Twitter’s own figures, it is walking away from at most $3 million.)
A more thoughtful critique came from Jessica Alter
, who leads a community for progressive and centrist campaigns. She argued that banning political ads would disadvantage lesser-known and nontraditional candidates by making it harder for them to break through.
This favors people who 1. can pay for these less cost effective forms of media and 2. those who have spent time building a twitter following. As an example of someone like this see Donald J. Trump
And there’s evidence that social media ads help unknown candidates stand out — see this paper
from political scientists who found that Facebook ads prompted many down-ballot candidates to run their first advertising campaigns. (They also found that Facebook ads tended to be less
negative than TV ads.)
Alter and others argued that the money once spent on political ads on Twitter would simply go dark, with candidates secretly paying influencers to promote them via (still allowed) organic tweets.
Which seems likely enough. To me, the biggest issue with this and any other Twitter policy is enforcement. Twitter has a long history of announcing changes it then has a lot of trouble implementing, and banning any whiff of politics from the advertising platform is going to give them fits.
We know this, because it gives Facebook fits. The company requires political advertisers to register, and any time it asks some borderline advertisers to verify their name and location — a recycling program, say, or a public health campaign for PReP — advertisers howl that they have been unjustly banned. Imagine how loudly they’ll howl when they actually are banned, rather than simply asked to fill out some paperwork.
I expect Twitter to have great trouble distinguishing what is an “issue ad” from what is not. Expect to see many false positives, and many false negatives. And depending on who is affected, and how often, you might even expect to see Congressional hearings over it.
Zuckerberg, during the earnings call, dug his heels in
and said the company would continue to sell political ads and not (for the most part) fact-check them.
“I believe that the better approach is to work to increase transparency,” he said. “Ads on Facebook are already more transparent than anywhere else.”
On some level, the disagreement between Zuckerberg and Dorsey is just philosophical. Some people will want to permit more speech, whatever the consequences. Others will think they can build a safer community with less. One reason to encourage competition among tech platforms is to provide us with choices.
At the same time, this is also an ongoing political fight, and Zuckerberg may ultimately have to reconsider his approach. Not so much because of pressure from his employees — only around 250 of them signed that letter, out of a global base of 35,000 — but because of pressure from politicians and the public.
The relevant test case here is Adriel Hampton, a San Francisco activist and marketing firm owner who registered to run for governor of California this week. As Donie O’Sullivan reports as CNN, Hampton had but one aim: “Hampton told CNN Business that he will use his new status as a candidate to run false ads on Facebook about President Trump, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and other Facebook executives. … His goal is to force Facebook to stop allowing politicians to run false ads.”
Under the policies it articulated this month, Facebook should let those ads stay up in the name of free speech and political neutrality. But then Facebook surprised me late Tuesday by saying it would stop allowing politicians to run false ads — only just for one politician.
“This person has made clear he registered as a candidate to get around our policies, so his content, including ads, will continue to be eligible for third-party fact-checking,” a Facebook spokesman said in an email to Recode.
So, if you’re keeping score, you’re now allowed to lie in political ads on Facebook, unless you admit that you’re lying. I think. I asked Facebook if someone would walk me through their logic here today, but I didn’t hear back.
It remains to be seen whether Twitter can live up to the promise it made to the public today. But in some important quarters, it seems to have notched a moral victory over its longtime rival. Before yesterday, no matter what you thought about Facebook’s policy on political ads, you at least had to admit that the company’s position was coherent. As of Tuesday evening, that was no longer the case.