‘Thanks but no thanks’ is consensus attitude toward Twitter’s political ad ban
It was a Twitter thread heard 'round the world. CEO Jack Dorsey proclaimed no more political advertising on his platform, to which the internet replied: Bad idea.
In a clear shot at archrival Facebook — since founder Mark Zuckerberg has remained adamantly opposed to censoring any ad content on his social network — at the end of next week Twitter will be booting all paid advertising aiming to influence elections in any way. That is because, Dorsey said, "political message reach should be earned, not bought."
Since Twitter's announcement at the end of October, however, many officials and advocates who profess concern about disinformation's spread have come to agree that Twitter's move misses the point and won't prove to be that big a deal. Most misleading political content is posted for free and doesn't seek eyeballs through paid advertising, they note, and Twitter's political ad revenue is a drop in the bucket compared to what Facebook and Google get. Plus, they say, the social media giants have hardly proved themselves worthy of the public trust required of self-regulators.
Most Americans now say they get at least some of their news from online sources — 55 percent as of last month, an 8-point surge in just one year, according to the nonpartisan and respected Pew Research Center.
And so the steadily rising volume of increasingly sophisticated disinformation, from manipulated videos to genuinely fabricated news coverage and expert reports, looms as one of the great dangers facing the coming campaign — up there with voting system hacking as an election security threat that could upend the reliability of the 2020 election's outcome and make people even less confident in American democracy than they already are.
Twitter has not signaled any backing down in the face of criticism. This week it plans to detail its new policies, including its definition of "political ads," before imposing the new curbs Nov. 22.
The parties aren't united on much, except against Twitter
One silver lining around Twitter's announcement may be this: Republicans and Democrats in Washington hardly agree on anything these days, but they have come together in disapproval of the idea that social media companies should be relied on to police corporate behavior in perpetuating social discord.
One week after Dorsey's announcement, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted it in a Senate floor speech. While Twitter talked of itself as seeking to level the playing field, the Kentucky Republican said the effect would be the opposite. The ad ban would likely prevent small nonprofits from amplifying their views on policy during the campaign, he said, while cable news networks and national newspapers would "remain free to advertise their political speech."
"It would seem that Twitter will either have to ban opinion journalists and the press from advertising their own work, or else create an enormous double standard that would just amplify the already-privileged speakers who already possess multi-million-dollar platforms," McConnell said.
Ellen Weintraub, the Democratic chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission, says politicians and political groups running ads is not nearly so much of a problem as how voters from minority groups are singled out for manipulation though bad information.
"Microtargeting by foreign and domestic actors in 2016 proved to be a potent weapon for spreading disinformation and sowing discord. There is no reason to think it will not be wielded even more effectively going forward," she wrote in The Washington Post.
Twitter has never been the go-to platform for political advertising, though, so this ban will hardly affect its bottom line. Before the 2018 midterm, election ads brought in just $3 million, or one-tenth of 1 percent, of its $3 billion in revenue. Facebook, on the other hand, received about $330 million for posting political ads — but that was still just a sliver (half of 1 percent) of its $66 billion in revenue.
Last month, another social media platform, the Chinese-owned TikTok, pronounced itself a political ad-free zone. This announcement was less controversial, though, since the video-sharing app has become especially popular among people too young to vote and so was rarely used for displaying paid campaign advertising.
"Honestly, most of the disinformation out there now is not on ads being purchased, particularly not ads being purchased on Twitter," said Ann Ravel, a Democratic member of the FEC for three years ending in 2017. "I think really what it was with them is a way to distinguish themselves from Facebook."
Evidence self-regulation is not enough
In the year before the ad ban, Twitter took the intermediate step of increasing transparency to permit the public to learn a bit more about who was paying for the political spots seen on the site. Facebook and Google also created similar searchable advertising databases in 2018 in response to the threat of continued foreign interference in U.S. elections, and Snapchat joined them in a limited way this fall.
But the cross-partisan government reform advocates at Issue One call these voluntary efforts "woefully inadequate." The group released a report last week analyzing how all four companies handled their voluntary political advertising disclosures and concluded their very different approaches have created an uneven and confusing array of information for the public about who's financing what they see online. (The Fulcrum has been incubated by Issue One but remains journalistically independent.)
For instance, each platform has a different idea about what it considers to be a political ad. To Google this means the paid content must include an elected official or candidate. But for Facebook and Twitter, the definition is broader and loops in political action committees, political parties and advocacy groups.
If anything, this self-regulation methodology employed by tech companies only makes a more compelling case for the federal government to impose more uniform standards, Issue One argues.
And the group has been leading a lobbying effort, along with several other prominent democracy reform groups, for advancing the so-called Honest Ads Act, which would require large digital platforms to reveal the pricing, target audience and identity of the advertisers behind political ads on their sites. Essentially, the bill would regulate online ads the same way paid TV, radio and print content is regulated now.
The legislation has a precisely bipartisan set of backers in the House — 18 Republicans and 18 Democrats — and the support in the Senate of Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrats Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mark Warner of Virginia. While House passage would seem likely, no vote has been set, and even then McConnell is maintaining his blockade of all measures written in the name of boosting election security.
The FEC also has powers to change the rules by regulation. It has authority to implement new standards for election ads, but since September the agency has lacked the minimum four commissioners required to change policies. And even before that, the latest round of talks about regulating ads online had stalled.
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In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.