Twitter’s new rules banning political advertisements are a good reminder that the first target of censorship is rarely the last.
CEO Jack Dorsey presents the ban as a way to address “unchecked misleading information” that political ads are spreading.
As a private company, Twitter is free to adopt whatever policies it wants to regarding speech. But Dorsey’s almost certainly overestimating his company’s ability to determine what constitutes political advertising. And it’s fair to ask what the consequences of this top-down approach could be.
For starters, we see little agreement on what constitutes a political ad – not a surprise when seven out of 10 Americans say that those on opposite sides of the political spectrum can’t agree on basic facts. Some consider posts by companies touting any of their activities as inherently political. Was Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ ad starring Colin Kaepernick an effective way to promote a clothing brand – or a political statement about injustice in America?
Now that Twitter has positioned itself as the referee, it can expect to be lobbied by politicians who can regulate them and activists on the left and right who can stir up bad press to change the definition of a political ad and silence certain groups.
Twitter also believes that the new policy will level the playing field, preventing anyone from buying reach (retweets and follows) and forcing them to “earn” it.
But will it?
Paying to reach an audience doesn’t tell us anything about the validity of that message. That’s how many lesser-known candidates get their message out. Well before Twitter existed, concerned Americans took out ads in their local newspapers, printed and distributed pamphlets, donated to advocacy organizations and in countless other ways engaged in a public debate by spending money to reach an audience. Banning those ads from Twitter will benefit those who already have large followings – often incumbent politicians and those with the loudest or most extreme voices.
History shows that society benefits from more freedom and diversity of opinion – not less. Advocates for women’s suffrage and civil rights expressed what were once considered unpopular or fringe opinions. Having a broader array of perspectives, even those we disagree with, enriches our understanding of crucial issues. Being able to express our views without fear of suppression allows us to critique those in power and hold them accountable.
Twitter’s policy is just the latest manifestation of a deeper public worry, a skepticism about Americans ability to be informed citizens. Being a citizen is hard work.
Politicians may lie, or more charitably twist facts to their benefit. People who engage in political debates often see the world in dramatically different ways. All of this was true before social media.
Right now, many are casting about for someone to blame. It is easy, but dangerous, to simply try to turn this problem over to a handful of tech companies and say: you fix it.
We have a First Amendment to defend against exactly this type of scenario where one central authority can place restrictions on speech. But that legal protection relies on a culture that embraces free expression. And, as Ben Thompson recently noted, American tech companies have been uniquely successful at exporting our culture of free expression around the world.
Twitter was a leader in the cause. In 2012 Tony Wang, a senior executive in the United Kingdom called Twitter “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” Twitter’s then-CEO Dick Costolo echoed that call.
They were right then. They are wrong now.
Twitter is free to make its own choices but as one of the world’s biggest social media companies, it can help make the internet either a freer or more restrictive place. We hope company officials will rethink their recent decision, trust their users and opt for more speech – not less.
Jesse Blumenthal is vice president of technology and innovation for Stand Together and director of technology and innovation for the Charles Koch Institute.
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