'We Can Fact Check Your Ass,' but Not When It Comes to Political Ads

Twitter has made a bad decision when it comes to banning political ads from its site. They should trust users to decide what is right or wrong.


On the heels of Facebook announcing it would allow misleading or even factually-incorrect political advertisements, Twitter has announced that it will forego running all paid ads for individual candidates and issues. As Reason's Scott Shackford notes, Twitter has not yet released its final guidelines (Twitter head Jack Dorsey has promised to deliver them by November 15) and both platforms are clearly responding to threats by legislators seeking to regulate social media.

The differing approaches to the issue of paid speech provide a good opportunity to discuss not just how political communications work in a post-broadcast world but also how the internet is falling short of its promise to radically alter the way people communicate and connect. There are many reasons to criticize Twitter's decision (which, as a private platform, it has every right to make), but the ultimate reason is this: It represents a near-complete lack of faith in users to function as critical consumers of information.

In a long thread, Dorsey extols the virtue of organic "reach" on Twitter, writing:

A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. 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 immediately recognizes that the very same argument can be made against all forms of advertising, which is how Twitter makes money, so he feels a need to claim that political speech is uniquely serious:

While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions.

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.

This sort of thinking represents a fundamental betrayal of the ideals that helped build the internet into an unparalleled, open system of knowledge and information. Dorsey is effectively saying that we—you, me, and the typical Twitter user—can't manage to sift wheat from chaff online.

Go back to the mid-1990s, as the World Wide Web was becoming a mass medium, and you'll find everyone talking excitedly about "disintermediation," or the removal of middlemen and gatekeepers from all sorts of cultural, economic, and political transactions. Finally, we would all be able to find and connect directly with like-minded souls in hyper-personalized, ultra-niche communities and markets (this spirit is alive and well in the bitcoin/blockchain space, with boosters celebrating the end of the need for "trusted third parties" to issue currency and validate transactions). Transactions would become more direct—and thus cheaper and more efficient. That attitude fit hand-in-glove with a belief that people could generally be trusted to act honestly and forthrightly, either because they were freed of the corrupting influence of intermediary institutions or because of forced transparency.

"We can fact check your ass," crowed pioneering online journalist Ken Layne in the early 2000s, announcing an ostensibly brave new world in which untruths, half-truths, and patently false claims would be readily debunked by legions of readers and writers who now had access to the means of publication. What was true for journalism was true for everything else, too: The reputations of once-sanctified professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and even college professors (remember Rate My Professors?) suddenly became matters of public record rather than recommendations passed along in semi-secrecy to the advantaged few. For the first time, car dealers had to face customers who had something approaching equal information about automobile costs (look upon and despair, old school salesmen!). Online merchants were subjected to publicly accessible reviews. Piping up about the food and service at restaurants quickly became the province of amateur critics. Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist pushed to put all government transactions online on the theory that somebody somewhere would be interested in sifting through checks and bringing meaningful information to light (that spirit is alive and well in groups such as Open the Books).

There were, of course, more than a few complications. It turns out that middlemen often provide massive value for customers by sifting through a lot of information, data, or choices and presenting a few items in a given field. It's a good thing that the power once held by, say, record labels has faded, but there's no question that the A&R guys at Columbia or Atlantic listened to a lot of bad music so the rest of us didn't have to. The same is true of publishing houses, clothing stores, and a lot of institutions and structures that literally and figuratively brought things to market. If you ever deputized a friend to pick movies or restaurants or clothing for you, you understand the value of middlemen or guides or editors. In 1994, former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel argued persuasively that as more raw information, news, and data became available we'd enter the "age of the editor" precisely because we would need trusted people who could help us navigate all the choices in front of us.

But the biggest complication to the simple idea that the internet and disintermediation would bring us the whole truth and nothing but the truth is simply this: We have different definitions of what is true, what is good, and what is meaningful. This is especially the case in politics, which is a lot more like religion than math. Most religions claim some monopoly on "truth," but what they're really providing is a way of seeing and understanding the world in ways that are subjective. Same with politics. Is Donald Trump's vision of what is wrong with America and how to fix it true or is Bernie Sanders'? I'd say neither is. But what the internet does (especially platforms like Facebook and Twitter) is enable more of us to directly enter the discussion—the argument over who is right and who is wrong. That's a great and liberating development but one that is mostly ignored by Twitter's Dorsey, who instead focuses on the creator of content rather than the consumers of it:

We need more forward-looking political ad regulation (very difficult to do). Ad transparency requirements are progress, but not enough. The internet provides entirely new capabilities, and regulators need to think past the present day to ensure a level playing field.

As a matter of history, it should send a chill down everyone's spine when anyone talks about regulating political speech. Campaign finance laws, including innocuous-sounding transparency requirements, are routinely used to penalize outliers such as the Socialist Workers Party. More than that, "the entirely new capabilities" provided by social media include the ability to engage, critique, and research any and all claims that come our way. We can indeed fact-check the ass of every advertiser we stumble across. Even more radically, we can block them at the click of button. If Dorsey wants to improve political discourse in cyberspace, he would do far better to give users more tools to tailor their experience as they see fit than to start banning whole categories of ads (which will be much harder in practice than theory; will Twitter ban paid endorsements by popular users as unfair? What about unpaid ones?).

"At some point," writes Jeff Jarvis, an early theorist of the ways in which online culture was empowering individuals in powerful new ways. "We must trust the public, the electorate, ourselves. If we cannot, then we are surrendering democracy. We must put our faith in the public conversation." Jarvis is a critic of both Twitter's and Facebook's political ad policies for reasons that are different from mine. But what is great and unique about the internet and social media is precisely that it allows more of us to participate in ever-changing and always-contested definitions of what is good, true, and relevant. Yes, yes, Twitter and Facebook and all the other platforms have every right to make whatever decisions they want, but when those choices are at odds with the internet's essential spirit, they deserve to be criticized.

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  1. “They should trust users to decide what is right or wrong.”

    Unfortunately the political mind usually works the other way around. They see their job as doing that for the people.

  2. Dorsey is effectively saying that we—you, me, and the typical Twitter user—can’t manage to sift wheat from chaff online.

    Sheesh, Nick, have you played Kennedy’s game “Fake News or Florida”?

  3. “They should trust users to decide what is right or wrong.”

    This is where you make a choice to be idealistic or realistic. Do you craft your policies for what’s happening on the ground, or based on what SHOULD happen?

    1. What’s happening is the lies of the left are getting exposed

      Jack’s response is to work hard to kick conservative voices off of Twitter, and ban paid ads so that the Lefties can drown out the few righties left

  4. You’re just jealous of his jacket.

  5. In my ideal world — if someone handed me control of Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or any other similar social media platform — I’d …

    1. Immediately lift all censorship beyond that required by courts.

    2. Tell users that if they don’t like someone’s tweets, stop following them.

    3. And probably go to Congress when they summoned me, and tell them that I treat my customers as adults, responsible for themselves, and if parents want to restrict their children’s access, that is up to parents. Not me, not Congress, not pundits. Repeat that for every answer.

    1. 4. Prepare speech thanking the Board of Directors for the opportunity and wishing your colleagues the best as you begin the next chapter of your career.

        1. Assumes I had one 🙂

  6. Somewhere in the middle of all this hoopla is the notion – nay, the realization – the not using Twitter is also an option for any functional adult with a brain.

  7. Per the last thread, it’s important to know that Twitter is still just as trustworthy as it was before, but with less sponsored content. Make of that what you will.

  8. This is one where I’m having trouble getting my blood up… maybe it’s my alt-right sympathies… I dunno, but this:

    political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet.

    Yes, and when your bullshit terms of service is applied correctly and fairly, and you haven’t tipped the scales with your shadowbanning and algorithmic jiggery pokery.

    It’s not that the big tech companies are biased, it’s that they’re complete hypocrites about it.

  9. Twitter made the right call IMO. They’re still letting users post political stuff as regular users. They’re still allowing users to buy ads for nonpolitcal reasons.

    Politicians can still do their advertising on Twitter by getting their followers retweeting them (which I am sure still pisses off AOC, at al) they just can’t get preferential treatment to have their ads show up first.

    It saves the headache of getting their site taken over by political people, becoming just another political battle ground.

    1. The issue is how “nonpolitical reasons” is defined, as well as who does the defining, of course. At what point does issue advocacy cross the threshold into political advertising? I suspect they will continue to accept ads that many would still consider political while others would say e.g. aren’t political. It’s just “for the children ™.”

    2. Sure, they’re still letting left wing users post whatever they want

      i got kicked off for saying that I hoped @Deadspin died

      Because “that’s abusive”

      But hoping for Trump’s businesses to go bankrupt, or going all cancel culture on people or businesses?

      That’s Twitter

      So long as it’s done by the Left

  10. It’s Dorsey’s company, he can do what he wants, as can Zuck. I kinda wish Zuck would do the same.

    1. Then never again complain about a company refusing to do business with gays.

      It’s their company, they can do what they want with it.

      You want to kiss goodbye every single civil rights law that affects private companies? Great!


      Then Jack can’t “do what he wants” with his company

  11. Twitter and Facebook and all the other platforms have every right to make whatever decisions they want, but when those choices are at odds with the internet’s essential spirit, they deserve to be criticized.

    The “internet’s essential spirit” is ads?

    That’s bullshit. Ads have always been counter to the “spirit” of the internet, something we all suffer so that we don’t have to pay memberships for every site. They’ve never been a positive aspect to any of this.

    And in case you didn’t notice, this isn’t a ban on political content on Twitter, it’s a ban on paid-for ads. So it’s not like it’s even contrary to the “essential spirit” of the platform, which was about user-created content. Like the rest of the internet, ads are a necessary evil on twitter, and not a positive part at all.

    So with all due respect, Gillepsie, what are you smoking that you’re defending ads?

    1. The internet’s “essential spirit” is cat pictures.

  12. Don’t care one way or the other really. If political ads are something people really want then I would assume another company can step in and grab this share of the market from Twitter.

  13. news, and data became available we’d enter the “age of the editor” precisely because we would need trusted people who could help us navigate all the choices in front of us.

    We’re long already here. I trust a handful of youtubers who make it their business to review and rate everything from video games to movies to flashlights more than I do the modern Siskel and Eberts (no disrespect to Siskel and Ebert).

    What’s fascinating to me is how quickly and badly “new media” people want to be “old media”. The second someone can make a living at it, they desperately want to be shielded from their own readers.

  14. Twitter and Facebook and all the other platforms have every right to make whatever decisions they want, but when those choices are at odds with the internet’s essential spirit, they deserve to be criticized.

    Build your own Social Media Empire.

  15. but there’s no question that the A&R guys at Columbia or Atlantic listened to a lot of bad music so the rest of us didn’t have to

    In their opinion.

    1. Seems to me that much of the bad stuff got through.

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  17. Problem is, disintermediation didn’t really get rid of the gatekeepers – it just empowered frauds, charlatans, grifters and demagogues to be tinpot gatekeepers in their own little sections of the Internet.

  18. Dude, it’s just Twitter. You can still see as many political ads as you want elsewhere on the net. For that matter, you can still discuss politics as much as you want on Twitter.

  19. What is the Venn diagram between twitter and voting?

  20. “Why are you so interested in my ass? Anyway, that’s where I get my best information, so back off.”

  21. You misspelled forgo.

  22. This solution is perfect for the left – well, and any mainstream politician I suppose. They already control the main avenues of disseminating political information: The networks, the newspapers and the main internet sites. Now they are working toward preventing paid political advertising, so you can’t even pay to get your message out.

    So if you are a progressive you love this answer. Maybe not as much as a straightforward ban on “misleading” information (where a board of progressives gets to decide what is misleading), but effective nonetheless.

    And if you are a libertarian or true Green party advocate, you hate this decision. Because this is the next-to-last step toward a permanent lockout.

    They have already shown that they will shut down individual speech that they disagree with – via things like shadow bans and outright banning of accounts that express disfavored views. So add that to a world where you can’t even pay to be heard, and they completely control the narrative.

    1. You need to take that up with Ronald, the destroyer of the middle class and shared prosperity, Reagan who eliminated the Fairness Doctrine.

      I can remember when Liberals, Progressives, and other Moderates were not allowed to rent rural billboards because their Conservative owners did not want the sheeple exposed to the truth.

      If Conservatives now love “Socialism” sooooooooo much, I look forward to Conservatives advocating that Liberals, Progressives, and other Moderates being given access to half of the prime time slot on Fox, the Bernie Madoff of media, News and AM Radio.

  23. I support this ban, because it will help users to know the real information and not to mislead themselves. After all, political advertising to produce discussions, which is based on false information.

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  25. What this shows is that Facebook makes a lot more money off political ads than Twitter.

  26. This is because they are being harassedb6 politicians like AOC demanding they fact check political ads, while maintaining that there is a clear distinction between a lie and spin. This is a case of prior restraint on speech without even having to pass a rule because Dorsey sees trying to satisfy these demands as a no win scenario. Twitter is going to catch hell from Washington no matter what they do, so may as well not even bother.

  27. I see a lot of people missing option #3: politics is controversial and brings a lot of attention and distractions to Twitter that Dorsey does not give ten shits about.

    I think it could be an interesting business model to reject politics at that level. A lot of people want de-politicized spaces and platforms.

  28. “They should trust users to decide what is right or wrong.”

    I’d believe that our domestic Conservatives are sincere in their whining when it comes to their vile evil murderous pro-pollution ideology being censored on social media IF they also advocated for their Conservative competitors in ISIL/Daesh to also be allowed to use social media (or give speeches on college campuses) without harassment. (At least ISIL/Daesh isn’t conspiring to commit mass murder on a global scale with AGW by claiming that reality is myth when it comes to global warming.)

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