Social Media’s Division Over Political Ads

Facebook stands increasingly alone in the debate over political ads, with Twitter’s banning of ads showing a clear divide between two social media giants on modern democracy’s most pertinent problem.

In October, Facebook refused to take down an advert containing false information about Joe Biden, who is running for the Democratic nomination for President. The post, funded by a pro-Trump super-PAC, claimed Joe Biden gave the Ukrainian attorney-general a billion dollars to not investigate his son. 

The advert was clearly inflammatory, untrue and prompted new questions about Facebook’s commitment to the truth. Rival candidate Elizabeth Warren’s campaign ran a similarly false advert claiming that Facebook CEO Zuckerberg endorsed Donald Trump for President, in order to expose how easy it was to spread false claims on the platform. Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez followed these concerns up, grilling Zuckerberg over whether a Democrat could publish false adverts to which Zuckerberg admitted they “probably” could.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced his company’s intention to ban all political advertising from November 22nd. The announcement intensified debate around big tech’s responsibility to prevent misinformation, but also on the future of online political ads entirely. In explanation, Dorsey tweeted:

“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.”

Twitter later clarified the details of the ban – some forms of political ads will still be allowed on the platform. These will be adverts either funded by non-profit organisations or adverts designed to highlight social issues such as encouraging people to vote. The motivations behind Twitter’s policy exchange do appear to be based in the ethical implications that continuing to carry political ads would entail. The CEO’s ended his thread by highlighting that wealthier groups are able to buy more reach compared to competitors with lower budgets:

“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.”

The issue of targeted, political ads has become a hot topic in media circles and pop culture alike. Documentaries such as Netflix’s ‘The Great Hack’ have helped us learn what the problem is, but little so far has been done to tackle it. Many see this move by Twitter as the first significant attempt to do so. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was quick to respond to the announcement and offered an opposing view of the role of political advertisement during a speech in Georgetown:

“Given the sensitivity around political ads, I’ve considered whether we should stop allowing them altogether… But political ads are an important part of voice – especially for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise. Banning political ads favours incumbents and whoever the media covers.”

Zuckerberg’s argument that political ads are an important element of free speech and democracy is an interesting one. Political ads in their entirety are nothing new and have long been part of western democracies. There is, however, no formal regulation of online political ads. This means there is nothing to prevent the dissemination of false information, and Facebook’s decision to exempt political ads from their own policy of banning false statements in paid advertisements does nothing to counter the problem. Not only this, but Facebook uses third-party fact-checkers to test the validity of high-profile posts, and yet again, Facebook has given politicians an exemption from this scrutiny.

It is also difficult to see how banning online political ads is anti-democratic. In Zuckerberg’s own words, the success of social media is rooted in its ability to connect people and provide a platform for people to share their voice. Posts traditionally gain traction organically because their content gains a reaction from people who see it. This can mean that absolute new-comers will take time to increase their reach, but that is natural for all forms of campaigning. Political advertisements can, therefore, be seen as a distortion in the online market for political voice and reach, as explained by Dorsey.

It is worth considering criticisms for Twitter’s policy change. Cornell University Professor of Communications J Nathan Matias has spoken of potential unintended consequences of the policy. He believes there will be more use of bots and ‘hybrid human-software’ in order to increase the reach of posts artificially without the use of ads. Matias also warned that Twitter needs to have an effective policy for judging what constitutes political content, otherwise they could do damage to the health of public discourse.

Last week, Google announced it will crack down on political advertising by limiting advertisers’ ability to target voters by affiliation and demographic, and also tighten a ban on ‘demonstrably false claims’ and ‘deepfakes.’ Similarly, Snapchat will begin to fact check any political ads on their platform, whereas TikTok will ban them altogether.

As more and more companies change their code of conduct, the calls for Facebook to follow will grow. As a company, their stance on the issue is increasingly placing themselves alone in the online environment. This may well mean that we see a U-turn from the company sometime soon. However, no one can predict that is the likely course of action. Afterall, Facebook have no legal requirement to join the rest of big tech over this issue, and although Zuckerberg rejects any notion that their decision is financially motivated, their share price continues to rise. Twitter, on the other hand, saw a slight dip in their value after their initial announcement. 

It is generally agreed big tech companies need a code of conduct regarding political ads, but that still leaves a lot of unknowns for online spaces. The current debate highlights the need for formal regulation. Democratic societies need suitable checks and balances, and until now social media has been a free-for-all for political advertising. As our societies evolve, it is becoming more imperative that regulatory systems do too. A move to outline what is acceptable would likely be welcomed by most CEO’s, as it could help remove themselves from controversy as ultimately, they are not lawmakers.