Twitter’s decision to ban political and issue ads has sparked yet another controversy in the discussion around the role big tech platforms play in our elections and how their policies impact the strategies of campaigns here in the U.S. and globally. Rather than adding to the noise around this issue, I want to provide you with an overview of the situation, what it means, and what other, smart people have said about the situation.
Let’s be clear, the ad ban by Twitter isn’t going to impact campaigns in any meaningful way. Federal election spending on Twitter in the 2018 cycle was just $279,390 compared to $19,434,195 spent on Facebook.
What is less clear is how the policy will be enforced. It’s one thing to prohibit candidates and those advocating for or against a candidate from advertising, but the water becomes murkier when considering just how politicized nearly every facet of our lives has become. Elizabeth Warren, has already raised one such gray area before the policy has even taken effect:
Enforcement will be messy and fraught with errors. The decision invites more scrutiny to a platform that was largely ignored by political advertisers.
How Will Facebook Respond?
Twitter’s decision does put pressure on Facebook, and to a lesser extent Google and YouTube, with prominent liberals, like Hillary Clinton, calling on the platforms to follow suit. Tara McGowan, one of the Democrats’ most forward-thinking digital strategists, is warning her colleagues away from this pursuit, writing,
“I’ll be blunt: A blanket political advertising ban on Facebook would have disastrous consequences for Democrats — and my friends on the left should reconsider advocating for such a move.”Tara McGowan, ACRONYM
Tara is right, a ban on political advertising on Facebook would be catastrophic for every candidate – Republican or Democrat – not named Trump. I’ve spent the last several years sounding the alarm that Republicans need to invest more into list building advertisements on Facebook.
Others on the Right worry this is the camel’s nose under the tent to hurt conservatives who typically rely on paid media to fight back against media narratives often influenced by the Left. There’s also concern about what this means for a culture of free speech. Censorship of any kind is bad, whether it’s imposed by a government or a company.
For now, Facebook seems to be holding the line on permitting political ads and prioritizing free speech, but the company is looking at other policies like eliminating the ability to “microtarget” political ads or limiting the number of ads an advertiser can run. Just as with Twitter’s difficulty defining what constitutes a political ad, Facebook will struggle on setting the parameters of “microtargeting.”
Why Are We Trying to Fix What Wasn’t Broken?
The current regime of transparency benefits everyone while preserving free speech. Political advertisers can say whatever they want to whomever they want, as long as they have the money, but their opponents, voters, and the media will have visibility on those ads.
The system isn’t perfect and some bad actors still get through, but at least we have transparency that roughly mirrors the experience of broadcast television advertising. As I discussed here, Facebook’s decision to fact check some political content and not others is especially problematic in light of research that has found that such labeling has an “implied truth effect” when it is only partial and not comprehensive.
We Still Need to Break Up Facebook
While I don’t support a ban on political advertising on Facebook and believe their approach to fact checking is ham-fisted at best, we still need to address Facebook’s prioritization of engagement above all else.
As Tara notes, this emphasis on engagement as the North Star metric for Facebook means that problematic content will “spread organically like wildfire” on the platform. Engagement is key for keeping users on Facebook’s properties and their ability to sell more ads – their core business.
Because Facebook owns four social media products with more than a billion users worldwide – Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram – neither consumers, nor marketers (political or otherwise) have anywhere else they can go. Only by breaking up the company will new competitors have the space to enter the marketplace to offer consumers and marketers options that prioritize civilized discourse or fact-based conversations with business models that expand beyond advertising.
The bottom line is that political campaigners don’t need to be worried about Twitter’s political ad ban negatively impacting their campaign, but unequal enforcement should remain a concern. If Facebook decides to follow suit, which I believe is unlikely, campaigns will need to scramble for other ad inventory and reassess their organic engagement on the platforms.