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.