Twitter Upstages Facebook With Ban on Political Ads

Tuesday, 19 November, 2019 - 09:15 Issue Number [14966]

Facebook Inc. is a superpower. Twitter Inc. is a relative nobody. On Wednesday, though, Twitter won a round.

Just as Mark Zuckerberg’s company reported quarterly earnings, Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey tweeted that his company would stop accepting advertisements from candidates for elected office. Starting next month, Twitter also won’t accept payments to promote tweets or other ads that take a position on meaty policy issues such as immigration, health care, national security and climate change.

Dorsey did not mention Facebook, but he was clearly taking a stand against Zuckerberg. Facebook and its CEO have been under fire for not fact-checking posts from politicians, including their ads. That means Facebook can make money from politicians lying to potential voters. 1 As the controversy flared in recent weeks, Zuckerberg has repeatedly said Facebook doesn’t want to censor political speech.

Dorsey, essentially, said that Facebook’s free-speech argument was bogus. “This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach,” he tweeted.

Twitter deserves credit for recognizing that the stakes from precisely targeted digital messages related to politics and policy are high and that those messages shouldn’t remain unchecked. Some of Facebook’s employees have similar views.

Zuckerberg has also justified his company’s hands-off treatment of political ads by saying Twitter and Google do the same. Not anymore. (Google, the world’s biggest seller of advertising, somehow has avoided being dragged into this mess so far.)

Dorsey’s policy shift was also astute, and not much of a business sacrifice. Political candidate advertising on Twitter is small compared with that on Facebook. The company said last week that political ads represented less than $3 million in revenue during the 2018 US midterm elections. Zuckerberg said Wednesday that ads from politicians might make up 0.5% of Facebook’s revenue next year. That suggests candidate ads of around $400 million. (Also see this from a Politico reporter, who said political ad purchases on Facebook in the 2017 U.K. election were 55 times the ad spending on Twitter. For context, Facebook’s total yearly advertising revenue is about 20 times Twitter’s.)

The timing of Dorsey’s announcement was also a direct jab at Facebook on its earnings day, and it seemed to catch the bigger company off guard. In Zuckerberg’s prepared remarks on Facebook’s earnings call, he gave another impassioned defense of the company’s policy not to screen political ads. Zuckerberg either didn’t know about Twitter’s ad-policy shift, or he chose not to mention it.

Zuckerberg’s message was that Facebook’s policy position might be wrong, but it was a carefully considered, principled stand rather than one motivated by a desire to make money from potentially inflammatory messages or a way to keep conservative politicians from complaining about censorship. Because of the company’s ad policies, Zuckerberg said, “I expect that this is going to be a very tough year.” He’s probably right.

Before we all pat Twitter on the back too hard, the company has much work to do. It’s not trivial to draw the line on what qualifies as an “issue” ad. Would a MeToo group be considered ineligible for paid tweets, for example? Twitter can also make all the policies it wants, but Dorsey’s tweets are empty words without effective enforcement. Twitter and Facebook have too often failed to police their own rules effectively.

And as we learned from the 2016 US presidential election and other campaigns since, harmful misinformation about hot-button issues and bogus messages about candidates are not confined to paid messages. Much of the internet misinformation related to the 2016 US election were posts, pictures and videos that people liked, clicked on and otherwise chose to spread without Facebook getting paid to promote it.

It’s clear that deliberate misinformation online is a continuing, pernicious problem that won’t be fixed by one policy made by one company. US lawmakers have drafted proposals for how political ad rules should apply to digital hangouts like Facebook but have failed to push through the legislation. They haven’t dealt either with internet postings about contentious policy issues. That has put the onus on Facebook and other companies to decide for themselves. Dorsey in his tweets said lawmakers needed to act on political ads, even as he acknowledged it’s not easy to do so.

Facebook and Twitter both have done good work in the last couple of years to help outsiders see which candidates or groups are spending on ads and to whom their messages are targeted. That has been an important step, but now attention has turned from what the candidates are buying online to what they are saying.

Dorsey won’t have the last word on the issue of how to treat political messages. But for one day, he and Twitter showed up its more powerful neighbor.

(Bloomberg)