Twitter

Twitter's Ban on Political Ads Will Help Incumbent Politicians Maintain Power

Attacks and threats by elected officials lead to inevitable self-censorship.

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On Wednesday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced a pending worldwide ban on paid advertisements from and about political candidates and issues.

The company is still hammering out the details, but the goal is clear: Twitter is going to deal with the growing outrage and calls for some sort of impossible system of "fact-checking" political advertisements by bowing out entirely.

Dorsey explained yesterday afternoon in a lengthy Twitter thread that starts with this one:

He argues that political figures and issue groups "earn" their reach when people voluntarily decide to share or follow an account on Twitter: "Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money." He says that allowing campaigns to target individuals with paid political advertising "brings significant risks to politics" and can be "used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions."

Let's get the most obvious response out of the way first: Twitter is a private platform and should be permitted to set up whatever rules it wants to run political ads or to ban them entirely. If Twitter wants to deal with all this controversy by bowing out, that's their right. They have no ethical or moral obligation to serve as a platform for political advertisements. This decision was preceded by Twitter's similar choice in France—when the country attempted to force the social media platform to report information about political ads, they refused to run them altogether.

That said, this hand-wringing about some sort of distorting impact of political advertisement is ignorant claptrap oblivious to America's long history of freewheeling (and often misleading) campaign advertisements in every communication form that existed prior to social media. Furthermore, the decision will make it harder for less connected candidates and political organizations to reach people in the first place.

Nobody really likes political ads. But they do serve important purposes to advance democracy, particularly for those challenging the status quo. Incumbent politicians have a massive advantage not just in money raised but the fact that they have years of "earned media" over the work they do. Incumbents are operating with a much higher level of name recognition among their constituencies. With very few exceptions (almost always very rich citizens), anybody who seeks to challenge incumbents or our more powerful political organizations starts off at a huge disadvantage.

For Dorsey to treat the reach of these politicians as something that just happened organically is to deliberately ignore that their power and control over government strongly incentivizes voters to be aware of what decisions their elected officials are making.

The ability to spend money to improve the reach of a candidate's message is not a corrupting influence on democracy—it's a powerful balancing tool that allows a challenger to let people know he or she exists in the first place. Democracy is improved when challengers to power have avenues to reach voters that aren't under the control of the government.

While it's true that advertising gives richer people (and incumbent politicians) a louder voice, it also serves as a megaphone for new challengers. And to be clear, to whatever extent that mass sharing of social media messages is contributing to the spread of "fake news," political advertisements are not really the problem. Twitter itself notes that the company made less than $3 million from political ads in 2018 (out of total revenue of more than $3 billion that year).

Twitter representatives insist that this is all about the "principles," even though the beneficiaries of this decision are incumbent and entrenched political players who have massive amounts of reach precisely because of how much power they wield.

And, of course, we cannot ignore the political context of this decision. Politicians on the left and the right want to push around social media platforms, treat them as public utilities, and either force them to ban messages the politicians disapprove of or force them to carry messages that the politicians support. While it may be Twitter's "choice" to self-censor political advertisements, we cannot ignore the politicians who are using their power to influence this decision.

Don't expect too much opposition to Twitter's decision from the movers and shakers of the political world. A spokesman for presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden praised Twitter's decision over at CNN, saying "When faced with a choice between ad dollars and the integrity of our democracy, it is encouraging that, for once, revenue did not win out." That this decision will make it slightly harder for people with less recognition and access to media to maybe publicize some of Biden's failings? Well, that's just gravy.

Below, Reason TV on how dirty political ads are as old as American elections:

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  1. >>>We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising

    kewl now define political advertising.

    1. Exactly. Is Trump no longer allowed to say “hope everyone can join me at today’s rally in Dallas”? Is Yang no longer allowed to say “I don’t agree with Sanders on everything, but he’s right about gun control”? It’s not just an unnecessary and paternalistic, it can never be applied consistently.

      1. It seems pretty clear that Twitter is talking about cash from campaigns to buy spots for explicitly labeled advertising.

        1. Ah, I thought they meant political advertising in a more general sense. Admittedly, I skimmed the article. Still seems completely unnecessary, but I suppose looking for logic in ad-phobia is a fool’s errand.

          1. On second thought, a few other commenters mentioned it that Twitter is including “issue ads” in the ban.

            This might open up the door to some ambiguity. I can see the logic in that concern. Is an ad by a local gun store that says “we love our country and our freedoms, buy a firearm to defend yours” an issue ad? A left-leaning person could say that it is, even when a reasonable person could say otherwise.

        2. Can’t you just pay people to make accounts and tweet them along with trending hashtags?

          “Vote Trump #abolishthepinktax”
          “Biden shits when he farts #gophillysportsteam”

      2. Yes, because he didn’t pay twitter to put it in a ‘sponsored content’ ad.

        1. So we’ve defined advertising, but how about political? For example can an ostensibly non-political (but very politically active) group, like Planned Parenthood or the NRA, run a membership drive?

          1. That’s between Twitter and their angry mob of blue checkmarks to figure out.

    2. kewl now define political advertising.

      Guns and gun accessories have been banned since forever:

      Examples of weapons and weapon accessories include:
      -Guns, including airsoft guns, air guns, blow guns, paintball guns, antique guns, replica guns, and imitation guns
      -Gun parts and accessories, including gun mounts, grips, magazines, and ammunition
      -Rental of guns (other than from shooting ranges)
      -Stun guns, taser guns, mace, pepper spray or other similar self defense weapons
      -Swords, machetes, and other edged/bladed weapons
      -Explosives, bombs and bomb making supplies and/or equipment
      -Fireworks, flamethrowers and other pyrotechnic devices
      -Knives, including butterfly knives, fighting knives, switchblades, disguised knives, and throwing stars

      It’s impossible to read this ban as anything other than political.

  2. I’m really not sure if I give a shit. Not only are most people not on twitter (so their bowing out shouldn’t have that much of an effect), but also – does anyone really base their decision on who to vote for off of a political ad? Especially one on twitter – which features a plurality of journalist users talking to each other?

    Furthermore, the decision will make it harder for less connected candidates and political organizations to reach people in the first place.

    I noticed that we’re supposed to just take this as if its a given. Don’t less connected candidates and political organizations have less money to spend on advertisements, so, all other things being equal, this actually levels the playing field by prohibiting well-funded candidates from flooding twitter with negative attack ads on lesser known candidates that don’t have the money to defend themselves?

    I don’t have any real evidence to back this up, but I question whether political advertisements are really the mechanism that raises long-shot/underdog candidates to a winning position.

    1. No evidence necessary. Just twit it out, and call those who question ignorant bigots.

    2. I don’t think political ads really change many minds. But they do a lot to make people know that a particular candidate even exists, particularly among people who vote but don’t follow politics closely.

      1. I guess so. I can’t ever recall political ads after I’ve seen them. I always figured word of mouth and grassroots buzz was what got underdogs into the limelight these days.

        I just don’t think that this will have any real effect on visibility for most candidates. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ll probably continue to believe this until someone can show me data to the contrary.

        1. I think this may have been true at one point, but as house districts are so much larger in population these days (no increase in districts since the early 1900s) this is more than likely more difficult.

    3. does anyone really base their decision on who to vote for off of a political ad?

      Listening to NPR doing an election-day report on the Canadian elections where they were interviewing some people on who they voted for and why and there’s some college girl explaining her vote – she was looking through an article on the candidates and seeing all these same old white faces, and suddenly there’s Jagmeet Singh and she thought, “Finally! Here’s a candidate of color I can support!” And that’s who she voted for – the colored guy.

      So, yeah, sadly, I’m pretty sure there are people who will vote for a candidate based strictly on a Twitter ad. Not saying they should be allowed to vote, mind you, just that they will.

      1. I suppose, like what Zeb said above, the ad let her know that a non-white candidate exists. Sounds like the ad helped, but didn’t really persuade her one way or the other. She had already made up her mind to vote based on her racist belief system and the advert simply just showed her someone’s face and name.

        I suppose people are stupid.

        1. I’m not even Canadian and I knew Singh was running.

          And not from Twitter, either.

    4. […] does anyone really base their decision on who to vote for off of a political ad?

      Yes.

      A distressing number of people are low-information voters. Just having more name recognition can get someone more votes. You could argue it’s more important in the primaries then the general (where people are more likely to have stronger partisan preferences) but there is a significant number of people who don’t have strong political views.

      This notion that advertising doesn’t work is just strange.

    5. >>does anyone really base their decision …

      nobody under 80

  3. When faced with a choice between ad dollars and the integrity of our democracy…

    Oh boy.

    1. the integrity of our democracy

      This is the thought of a child.

      1. He does dress like a child, so..

    2. Dorsey’s Choice.

  4. Twitter’s Ban on Political Ads Will Help Incumbent Politicians Maintain Power

    First and obvious quip:

    Twitter is a private company so………………………………………

    Second less obvious take: I’m not necessarily against what Twitter is doing. If Nancy Pelosi can tweet herself to political victory via her private account, god speed to her. But Twitter has every right to tell Pelosi that they aren’t interested in her deutsche marks.

    1. Twitter is a private company so it’s a political ad for capitalism. As a fascist, I believe Twitter has an obligation to run whatever ads our moral and intellectual superiors in Government Almighty deem best for the good of the Homeland and the People. And none of that unhealthy consumer-culture advertising for things that might appeal to our baser natures such as unhealthy snacks, alcohol, big-screen TV’s, the latest trendy fashions, opulence and luxury in clothing, furniture, jewelry and motor cars – free-market capitalism is the very worst sort of politics there is.

      1. “free-market capitalism is the very worst sort of politics there is.”

        Certainly the most frivolous. A politics that defines itself by promoting the consumption of unhealthy snacks can easily be dispensed with when the ‘chips’ are down.

    2. “Twitter is a private company so…….”

      ARRGGGGG!!!!

      As recently as last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court restated that private action can qualify as government action “when the government compels the private entity to take a particular action,” (Manhattan Community Access Corp v. Halleck), or when the government exercises overt or covert coercive power or influence to cause a private entity to act in a specific way. (Rendell-Baker v. Kohn).

      Politicians like Feinstein and Widen publicly threatening to revoke Section 230 immunity unless social media “did something” about “bad” speech seems to fall within the realm of “overt or covert coercive power or influence,” does it not?

      1. Surprisingly (not surprisingly) social media companies think conservative ideas are “bad” speech, while leftist ones rarely are.
        That makes this decision a boon for the leftists, who rarely get banned from Twatter, while not giving conservatives a chance to buy the influence that leftists get for free.
        Imagine if a newspaper, like the NYT, banned political advertisements, while every story they print glorifies leftist ideology.

  5. What constitutes a political ad ?

    Any ad for election only ?

    1. Political ads are ads for people, things, causes that upset leftists. Right-to-life ads? Political. Planned Parenthood ads? Not political. Ads for alternative energy causes? Not political. Pro-fracking ads? Political. Support for Israel? Political. Support for suffering Palestinians? Not political.

      It’s really not that hard to figure out.

    2. The recent controversial Gillette ad, for example, is 100% political.

  6. Odds of this being enforced on third parties that are pushing Democrat causes vs third parties that push Republican causes. Anyone want to take bets?

    1. No, they deal with that by banning accounts, that push Republican causes, while leaving the ones, that push demoncrap causes, in place.
      This is not an effort to make things more fair.
      Just the opposite.

  7. How about we just ban everything everywhere except the party platform, and publish that on the FEC website for free?
    Then we can ban ALL political contributions because the candidates do not need a gazillion dollars “to get their message out”.
    Then maybe, just maybe, the elected ones will actually tend to the people’s business.

  8. Nobody really likes political ads. But they do serve important purposes to advance democracy, particularly for those challenging the status quo.

    Really? I doubt it. A good press release or favorable (or unfavorable) article written by a widely read columnist or a TV “news” spot or interview are all a million times more effective than a political ad.

    1. Right.

      And if you have a point of view that you want to get out…. those people are vital. In fact, if all other platforms follow suit, then they will hold absolute control over what issues you get to hear about, and what information you get to hear about those issues.

      Let’s say you think that police brutality is important. But the press won’t cover situations where the police gun down unarmed citizens. And you can’t find any sympathetic outlets to take up your cause. What can you do?

      Well, you could start a grass roots campaign and put up a facebook page. But if that view is disfavored, then Facebook can shadow ban you. So nobody sees it. The same goes for Twitter and your blog – google and bing don’t let it bubble to the top of any searches.

      So you get together a group of friends and you buy ads on the internet… which Google (largest ad platform), Facebook (second largest) and Twitter, et. al. ban. So you can’t get your message out that way by paying.

      So now what? TV is uber-expensive, and they also decided to join the political ad ban.

      I guess you could go out and buy ABC/Disney so you can have a cable/network outlet. But I really don’t think many people are going to be able to go that route.

  9. I personally don’t give a shit what Twitter does. It’s for twits.

  10. Twitter has banned gun and gun accessory ads since forever. AFAICT, this is yet another “[some] shit we don’t like” ban.

    It’s hilarious that the ‘woke’ generation of journalists hasn’t woken up to the fact that Twitter is giving them finely filtered and distilled opinions generated by twits rather than any actual news or insight into cultural affairs.

    1. Twitter can be good for getting info on places like Gaza where there are few if any traditional journalists posted. The ‘woke’ generation is well aware that any news organization filters and distills their product.

      “this is yet another “[some] shit we don’t like” ban.”

      They fear lawsuits more than guns.

      1. Twitter can be good for getting info on places like Gaza where there are few if any traditional journalists posted.

        You’ve confused “up-to-the-minute ramblings” for information.

        They fear lawsuits more than guns.

        So they fear lawsuits more than they fear political advertisers or they’ve convinced you that they fear a specter of lawsuits.

        1. “You’ve confused “up-to-the-minute ramblings” for information.”

          Not at all. Information is, shudder, filtered and distilled. Up to the minute ramblings are not. No shudder necessary.

          “So they fear lawsuits more than they fear political advertisers or they’ve convinced you that they fear a specter of lawsuits.”

          Twitter doesn’t fear advertisers. Twitter fears lawsuits.

      2. They fear lawsuits more than guns.

        Also, see above, the ban extends to far more than guns. Twitter bans pepper spray ads. Are they scared of getting sued by thwarted rapists?

        1. “Are they scared of getting sued by thwarted rapists?”

          Maybe. Companies also shy away from publicity generated by controversial or dangerous products. Ask Twitter if you are curious.

  11. “Don’t expect too much opposition to Twitter’s decision from the movers and shakers of the political world. ”

    On the other hand, expect to see opposition from challengers. Except there’s not a single quote or even attempt to interview a politician who can back the author’s views. Strange because of their desperate need to let the world know they exist.

  12. All I hope is when Twitter has implemented this policy, that everyone who still uses Twitter as a primary new source *cough*journalists*cough* should take note that Twitter is itself a big political advertising platform for Jack Dorsey and the rest of the Silicon Valley Tech execs who put their thumbs on the scales via omissions, shadow bans, arbitrary application of vague and nebulous ‘terms of service’, doctored search results and heavily filtered and moderated content.

    1. […] omissions, shadow bans, arbitrary application of vague and nebulous ‘terms of service’, doctored search results and heavily filtered and moderated content.

      I mean, that’s why you use Twitter, or Facebook, or whatever else. Because they actually do a pretty good job of bringing people what people want. Un-filtered/moderated/curated/etc’ed sites are crap.

      And none of that stops you from setting up your own alerts, trackers and so-on, to get that un-filtered stuff. But most people don’t want to do that, because it’s like drinking from a fire hose. Sure, it’s all coming at your face, but you’ll miss most of it and be unhappy anyway.

  13. Twitter’s Ban on Political Ads Will Help Incumbent Politicians Maintain Power

    Too bad.

  14. Their property, their rules.
    But, not sure if I care that much.

    1. I have to admit this one doesn’t get my blood up that much… and we’re talking about Jack Dorsey here.

  15. It’s transparently shutting down one of the few forms of mass media that the Right has access to and uses successfully.

  16. “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.”

    A sign it is willing to impose the same standard on all communication systems.

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