Is Twitter's ban on political ads too little, too late?

By David Macnamara on Friday, 1 November 2019

This week Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, announced through a series of tweets that his company planned to introduce a blanket ban on political advertising on the platform. The announcement was met with praise from most quarters. What struck me as interesting though were the questions this move raised with regards to just what is a political message, what is an opinion on an issue and when you boil the topic down, will the move completely undermine whatever integrity the platform has?

Something I think many can agree on is that for Twitter, and all social platforms for that matter, when it comes to political discourse and paid-for promotion, there is a severe lack of credibility. The ease with which anyone can force an opinion into our newsfeeds, whether that opinion is correct or not is troublesome. So, for them to in some way acknowledge this fact and try to eliminate it should be applauded, but the success of this initiative will only be seen in how seriously they police not just how messaging is controlled, but also how any ways of subverting these new rules are dealt with.

(Within all this, it should be noted that the income Twitter makes from political ads is relatively small, just $3M according to their most recent published figures, so the move isn’t particularly motivated by their bottom line.)

Twitter has already contradicted itself but suggesting that it will allow ads that promote voter registration, what happens when @Conservatives tweets “Don’t forget, registration to vote at the forthcoming election closes on December 10th. If you haven’t registered, Brexit won’t be delivered!” It’s a political message dressed up as reminder to register and that’s being pretty explicit. Consider perhaps a sponsored video from a popular fashion vlogger, where they offer style opinions on the major political figures. The video is light-hearted, but clearly skewed towards lampooning Jeremy Corbyn, Owen Jones and Diane Abbott. The video is promoted towards 18-21 year olds and paid for by supporters of The Brexit Party. If they are going to come after our fashion vloggers then who will they come after next?!

For many, the genie is already out of the bottle. We live in a world where the funded content we see on the internet will always be designed to push an agenda and influence opinion. If Twitter can actively enforce this new stand then it will help to make their platform a better place. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to see how they can achieve this having done little in the past and while they still struggle to police other issues like racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny (to name just a few), which continue to make parts of Twitter a truly hateful place.

Personally, I feel conflicted by this development. As someone who has spent over a decade on the platform, I’ve tailored my newsfeed to get exactly what I want from it (namely my IRL friends, football banter and articles about expensive trainers) and this feels like the opening of Pandora’s Box that may prove to be the end of the platform as we know it. While I recognise there is a need to hold social platforms to account for the dissemination of content that is provably incorrect, do we risk forcing ourselves into a situation where because we can’t police everything, we decide to not police anything? When we say we shouldn’t be allowed to have nice things, I think we might be on the verge of finding out just what that means for all of us.

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