Twitter’s decision to ban political advertising is clearly an attempt to dodge the controversy that Facebook, in typical fashion, walked straight into last month. But in practice, Twitter’s planned ban on political ads will raise many of the same issues bedeviling Facebook. And it may be even harder to implement.
The week before Twitter’s announcement, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had told Congress that his social network didn’t want to play fact checker on political ads — that candidates should be allowed to speak for themselves.
But Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez instantly exposed a difficulty in Mr. Zuckerberg’s position — it was true that Facebook would apply no quality control to political advertising. Facebook just wasn’t going to apply the same standards the politicians wanted them to.
Twitter’s response was to race in the other direction — rather than make hard or controversial choices about which ads to run and which to refuse, Twitter wouldn’t run any.
Twitter says it will release full details of the policy Nov. 15, but has already indicated that the ban will encompass “1/ Ads that refer to an election or a candidate, or 2/ Ads that advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance (such as: climate change, health care, immigration, national security, taxes).”
This description to some extent echoes campaign-finance rules about campaign spending vs. independent advocacy, but actually goes even further. Independent groups, not subject to federal contribution limits, can and do advocate on “issues” as long as they don’t specifically mention races or candidates. But these so-called dark-money groups have gotten very good at making it clear who they’re talking about without talking about them.
Twitter proposes to go even further and ban paid issue advocacy, at least to some extent.
But if the history of campaign finance teaches us anything, it’s that these rules will immediately be tested, and somebody is going to be unhappy about how they’re enforced.
Already Twitter is taking flak for encouraging science-denialism by including “climate change” on the list above. There will be more such tests.
But the elephant in the room — so to speak — is @realDonaldTrump and his 66 million followers. In a world in which politicians can’t “buy reach” on Twitter, the president’s reach looks insuperable. Democrats aren’t wrong to fear that bilateral disarmament in this case likely favors the incumbent. Although they’d deny it, this is part of the reason Kamala Harris and others have called for the President’s Twitter account to be restricted or even shut down.
Like it or not, our social networks have become formidable forces in our politics. For all the hand wringing about Russian interference, one thing is certain about 2016 — Donald Trump would not be president if not for his Twitter account. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey says he doesn’t want politicians to “buy reach” on his platform. But selling reach is the business that Twitter, and other social networks, are in. All of them make countless decisions every moment about what floats to the tops of our feeds and what gets suppressed.
Twitter can’t dodge the controversy over the policing of our online political conversations with this ban. It will merely end up inviting even more scrutiny of what all social networks do and don’t show us, day in and day out.
Eric Bovim is CEO of Avisa Partners U.S., a strategic communications consultancy based in Washington, D.C.
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