Jack Dowley, co-founder and CEO of Twitter announced this week that the popular social media platform will introduce a ban on political advertising. In a lengthy thread which has since been liked by over 400,000 users, Mr. Dowley outlined the details of the ban—a ban which seeks to remove targeted political messaging from the platform and is to be implemented on 22nd November. As this is less than three weeks before the U.K. general election, the announcement will undoubtedly disrupt the marketing tactics of political parties in the run-up to the election as well as alter the landscape of modern electioneering.
In the thread, Mr. Dowley states that users’ exposure to political messaging should be determined by who the user follows, stating that, “A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision…”. The move has been praised by Bill Russo, a spokesperson from Joe Biden’s election campaign who says, “When faced with a choice between ad dollars and the integrity of our democracy, it is encouraging that, for once, revenue did not win out.” However, Donald Trump’s re-election campaign manager deems the ban as “yet another attempt by the left to silence Trump and conservatives”. Mr. Dowley did, however, highlight that this move was not about freedom of expression, but rather about “paying for reach”.
Whilst the ban represents a step in the right direction, much more must still be done, even Mr. Dowley himself eluded to this when he noted that Twitter forms only “a small part of a much larger political advertising ecosystem.” Given that the Internet poses challenges to civic discourse, it seems all the more necessary to create new regulatory infrastructures in order to react to these challenges. Removing money from the equation seems like a logical first step in doing this however, more must still be done. Most notably, a regulation which prohibits the dissemination of fake news or misleading information is sorely needed. In addition, more transparency is necessary in order to give social media users, constituents and lawmakers more insight into political ads by looking at where the content emanates from as well as how particular segments of society have been micro-targeted.
Recent events have highlighted the importance of regulation upon online political discourse as whilst Twitter is making moves in a positive direction, the same cannot be said for Facebook. They have recently announced that ads from politicians on their platform are exempt from third-party fact-checking thus facilitating the circulation of the type of fake-news that regulation should be prohibiting. This re-affirms the need for stringent regulation as it once again demonstrates that Facebook is eschewing the responsibility that they have to ensuring the credibility of the content that circulates on their site. Mark Zuckerberg has defended this move by arguing that such a ban would constitute as censorship or bias and an attack on “free expression”. Although freedom of information is an essential component of a democracy, the circulation of misleading or false information is highly detrimental to a democratic society. Zuckerberg’s refusal to self-regulate therefore puts the ball firmly within the court of lawmakers who must act in order to ensure the reliability of the information on a platform that represents 80% of spending on political ads according to Politico.
The demonetization of political advertising on Twitter is a positive move which makes the “reach” of a certain political message dependent on how it resonates with the “people” rather than on how much money has been spent to support it. However, lawmakers are now charged with the responsibility of further regulating online political communication in order to ensure its credibility.
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