After watching Mark Zuckerberg get scolded in front of Congress by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for his lackadaisical attitude towards political ads, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that Twitter will ban all political ads.
We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought. Why? A few reasons…🧵
— jack 🌍🌏🌎 (@jack) October 30, 2019
At first glance, this seems like a good thing. Excessive and subversive political ads are what got us into the dumpster fire of a government we are currently experiencing. Since 2016, we haven’t stopped talking about Facebook, Russia, and Cambridge Analytica.
But this ban leaves us with quite a number of questions and very few answers.
The category of “political” can be interpreted broadly. Are fundraising ads from Planned Parenthood inherently political? Or will they fall under the category of healthcare? What about gun lobbyists? What about campaigns fighting to better fund CUNY? For all of these issues I could argue both sides. They could be political, they could not be political. It’s unclear how Twitter’s ban will define them.
As part of his testimony, Zuckerberg told AOC that, in theory, she can place an ad saying whatever she wanted. Regardless of its accuracy. Free speech (and profit margins) trumps everything. The other extreme, which Dorsey seems to be swinging towards, is not being able to say anything at all. To ban anything that might be offensive or controversial. It feels simple and safe.
But we’re not really safe. Because bots can still prowl the internet. The ban only stops politicians from paying for ads. It doesn’t stop bots or real-life loonies from posting homemade attacks ads for free on their timelines and urging their followers to retweet them. The only difference being that the politicians didn’t pay for the ads to be created or shared.
According to Zuckerberg, “In most cases, in a democracy, I believe that people should be able to see for themselves what politicians that they may or may not vote for are saying and judge their character for themselves.”
Zuckberberg places the onus on us, the readers, to decide if what we are reading is true. It becomes our responsibility to fact-check. And, I sort of understand. In an ideal world we would be trained to think critically about what we see in the media. We’d know how to spot misinformation and verify data. But most of us don’t.
This ban ignores the media illiteracy of so many Americans.
Most people didn’t even realize that what they were seeing was sponsored content because it was disguised to look like everything else that appeared in their feed. Dorsey’s response is to remove that impediment entirely. If there are no political ads, the public cannot be swayed.
But a ban like this will only force ad makers and campaign strategists to think outside the box and create new methods of disguising ads and finding ways around the restrictions.
Twitter’s ban is merely a band-aid.
It doesn’t solve many of the deeper issues at play here but attempts to cover them up so we can’t see the infection underneath.