Twitter’s virtue signalling political advert ban

Twitter’s decision to ban political adverts from 22nd November has certainly drawn attention and put the pressure on Facebook, which I suspect was exactly the point behind it. There is an element of virtue signalling as the platform draws comparatively little revenue from this stream. And it may deflect attention from the platform’s problems with bots, fakery and abuse. 

In his thread explaining the move, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey outlined a series of challenges he says that online platforms face, including:

“machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.”

“It‘s not credible for us to say: “We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad…well…they can say whatever they want!”

One of the criticisms of banning political adverts is that it favours incumbents. The suggestion is that new parties and candidates without a well known face or name will find it impossible to break through if they are not allowed to buy advertising. Dorsey addresses this, saying he has “witnessed many social movements reach massive scale without any political advertising. I trust this will only grow.”

The new policy has yet to be published in full but will include a ban on issue adverts as well as candidate adverts. The only exception will be adverts in support of voter registration.

And Dorsey signs off with a snipe at Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg who has recently promoted his own platform’s policy based on freedom of speech. Dorsey said:

“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.”

Twitter seems aware that they might be creating loopholes which can be exploited and have promised to publish the new rules by 15th November.

All this throws the ball back into Facebook’s court. With a vastly greater revenue from political and issue advertising, it seems highly unlikely they will take the decision to follow Twitter’s move immediately, although some have speculated that this might happen after the 2020 election cycle is finished. Where Facebook might move is over their decision not to fact-check political ads or any posts by political candidates.