News Brief

Twitter’s decision to stop running political ads divides opinions about the impact to free speech

Twitter’s decision to stop running political ads has divided opinions among disinformation experts, politicians and journalists about how the move will impact free speech.

The social media site with 139 million daily users will no longer allow political advertising on the platform, with CEO Jack Dorsey writing that “political messages reach should be earned, not bought.” Dorsey said that online political ads present “significant risks to politics” and take away people’s ability to decide for themselves which messages they see by following an account.

Reaction to Twitter’s announcement was swift. President Trump’s campaign described Dorsey’s decision as “very dumb”, and accused the company of liberal bias.

“Twitter bans political ads in yet another attempt by the left to silence Trump and conservatives. Wouldn’t be surprised if @twitter lifted the ban after 2020,” wrote Brad Parscale, Trump’s political campaign manager. He told NPR that “Twitter knows President Trump has the most sophisticated online program ever known.”

Twitter’s policy change centers on defining the balance between unrestricted free speech online while setting limits on the size of the audience politicians can purchase through paid promotions on sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and dozens of other platforms.

The announcement set a precedent for other web giants like Facebook. Earlier this week, Facebook’s head of news partnerships, Campbell Brown doubled down on the platform’s inclusion of Breitbart and other “ideological publishers on both the left and the right” on its forthcoming News section.

Twitter made just $3 million in political advertising revenue during the 2018 midterm elections, a fraction of its reported $2.11 billion revenue generated from advertising in the first nine months of this year.

Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, which has 2.5 million followers on Twitter, has spent $6,573 by October 31 on ads since June 2019, with several Democratic candidates spending far more. Two Democratic candidates, Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris have surpassed $1 million in spending on campaign ads on Twitter, Elizabeth Warren close behind.

“Limiting the ability for a rich person to saturate a space with one ideology is not “censorship,” wrote Ben Collins from NBC.  “The true censorship comes when important messages can’t be heard on social media amidst a deluge of cash.” But he did also identify a potential downside: “More dark money being fed to shady political influencers with big reach will start to arrive.”

Author Jeff Jarvis countered Collins, writing: “That’s TV you’re talking about: where rich people can afford to buy expensive commercials. Social with targeting allowed for inexpensive and effective advertising and now that’s lost here and power stays with incumbents.”

The average cost for a promoted Tweet is about a couple dollars.

Nina Jankowicz, who studies disinformation at the Wilson Center and has previously contributed to Coda, wrote that Dorsey’s announcement is more about signaling and providing symbolic value.

“No, twitter ads aren’t nearly as important or impactful as those on Facebook. I don’t view it as solving the problem, I view it as norm setting,” said Jankowicz, adding that policies like this at least attempt “establish & enforce rules.”

Dorsey’s announcement focused mostly on political ads from candidates but also includes what he called “issue ads” related to “legislative issues of national importance.” Twitter’s legal lead Vijaya Gadde said that more details will follow on November 15 but listed climate change, healthcare, immigration, national security and taxes as “issue ads.”

Tech analyst Benedict Evans already sees problems with this announcement: “Twitter banning ads for climate change will be very… entertaining. All sorts of people are going to get a nasty surprise when they find out that ‘banning political ads’ doesn’t just apply to people they disagree with.”

Finally, RT, the Kremlin-financed news organization, gave its own view on the subject in an “urgent” update to its followers on Twitter. RT said the platform was “caving in to ‘election meddling’ fearmongers.”