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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Two bills at the heart of congressional Democrats' agenda for securing next year's election have run into a formal roadblock at the hands of the Republicans running the Senate.
One measure would require disclosure of the organizations or people paying for the political advertising that's already flooding online platforms, with the goal of exposing those who would sully the 2020 campaign with disinformation. The other would authorize federal spending of $1 billion to repel another wave of voter registration and election equipment hacking attempts similar to the widespread interference tried by the Russians last time.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reluctantly agreed last month to get behind $250 million in election security grants to states, but he's vowed to block all other more expansive policy legislation. And so his deputies carried out his wishes Tuesday when a pair of Democratic senators went to the floor and sought permission to pass their favored bills.
First, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota asked for a vote on the so-called Honest Ads Act, which she wrote to require social media companies to disclose the buyers of political ads on their platforms and ensure the buyers are not foreign entities. The bill has a Republican co-sponsor in Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and a clutch of GOP backers in the House as well.
"There are many other bills that I'll come back and discuss in the next few weeks which would help on foreign influence in our elections," the presidential candidate said, "but today I want to focus on this one because election security is national security, and it's well past time we take action."
Klobuchar introduced a rare note about democracy reform into last week's presidential debate, when she urged passage of her measure before the next election to prevent social media companies from running political ads "without having to say where those ads came from and who paid for them."
She quipped that rubles paid for part of the 2016 campaign ad wars, a reference to Russia's buying spots on Facebook designed to prop up Donald Trump's candidacy and run down Hillary Clinton.
Also during the debate, Klobuchar pushed for "paper ballots in every single state," which would be mandated under the $1 billion election security aid package. Its advancement was blocked by the GOP after Minority Whip Dick Durbin asked for an immediate vote.
The efforts by Democratic senators to occasionally ask formally for a vote on their bills, knowing they'll be denied by the GOP leadership, are part of a strategy of applying steady public pressure on McConnell to reverse course.
Democrats first tried in June, just as special counsel Robert Mueller was testifying across Capitol Hill that Russians were attempting to interfere in the next elections "as we sit here." His report detailed Russia's efforts to use both social media disinformation and hacking to tilt the 2016 contest in Trump's favor.
The Democrats in control of the House, meanwhile, have passed a pair of ambitious election security bills this year that are on the roster of measures McConnell is blocking. The House is on course to pass a third such bill this week.
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Gun rights. Racism. Immigration. When it came to disrupting the 2016 presidential election, Russian operatives knew all the hot buttons to push on social media, according to a report released Tuesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
And push them they did, in what the report found was a clear and multifaceted effort to help Donald Trump and undermine Hillary Clinton — in a disinformation campaign virtually guaranteed to be resurrected with fresh approaches in the coming year.
"Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the U.S. that didn't start and didn't end with the 2016 election," the committee said. "Their goal is broader: to sow societal discord and erode public confidence in the machinery of government. By flooding social media with false reports, conspiracy theories, and trolls, and by exploiting existing divisions, Russia is trying to breed distrust of our democratic institutions and our fellow Americans."
The 85-page report is the second volume summarizing two years of work by the committee — which is unique among the congressional investigations of Russian interference in the election because it has been conducted with an emphasis on bipartisan collaboration by the Republican chairman, Richard Burr of North Carolina, and the Democratic vice chairman, Mark Warner of Virginia.
The executive and legislative branches and Silicon Valley will all have to work together to ensure social media sites aren't exploited in the coming election, they agreed. But as for specific legislation, the only proposal endorsed in the report is bill known as the Honest Ads Act, which would require big social media companies to disclose the funders of political ads on their platforms.
Otherwise, Warner (one of the primary sponsors of the Honest Ads Act) and Burr underscored their very different preferences for how intimately Congress should be involved in tackling the problem.
In a joint statement releasing the second volume, Burr called for cooperation among social media companies, federal agencies, law enforcement and Capitol Hill.
Warner called for more assertive legislative intervention, because the 2016 election made clear that "we cannot expect social media companies to take adequate precautions on their own. Congress must step up and establish guardrails to protect the integrity of our democracy."
He said Americans need more control over their data and need to know who is paying for online political adds. Social media companies need to ensure that they are identifying phony accounts and postings and rooting out defamatory or fake content.
Among the report's findings:
- Black people were targeted more than any other group or demographic. Russian operatives targeted African-Americans by encouraging them to sign petitions, share personal information and, in one case, help fund self-defense courses in exchange for information about those attending.
- Social media activity by Russian operatives actually increased after Election Day. Analysis of accounts controlled by these groups found large increases in activity on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube after the election.
"The committee found that Russia's targeting of the 2016 U.S. presidential election was part of a broader, sophisticated and ongoing information warfare campaign," the report says, and Russia's approach was "a vastly more complex and strategic assault on the United States than was initially understood ... an increasingly brazen interference by the Kremlin on the citizens and democratic institutions of the United States."
Among the committee's recommendations are that social media companies communicate more quickly with the government, law enforcement and individuals when inauthentic accounts are discovered.
And, in what carries an ironic twist, the committee called on Trump (who has denied Russian interference in the 2016 election) to warn people about the problem in advance of the 2020 election.
"A public initiative to increase media literacy and a public service announcement campaign could also help inform voters," the committee recommended.
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