Facebook and Twitter Stake Out Opposing Positions on Political Advertising

  • Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has announced that the company will ban all political advertising starting November 22.
  • Facebook continues to allow political ads and refuses to censor them, adhering to the same laws governing national broadcasters.
  • Many Democratic leaders and candidates praised Twitter’s decision, but other reactions from researchers and advocacy groups have been more circumspect.

Facebook and Twitter stake out competing positions

Though he did not mention Facebook specifically, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey threw down the gauntlet against the social media giant last month when he announced that Twitter would stop all political advertising.

“A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people,” Dorsey tweeted. “We believe this decision should not be compromised by money.”

Twitter’s ban includes all ads that refer to a candidate, an election or hot-button political issues. It will go into effect November 22.

Facebook, by contrast, has continued to allow political ads while steadfastly refusing to fact-check or otherwise censor their content. Instead it adheres to the same laws governing national broadcasters that ban them from censoring or restricting the material in political ads. Facebook has, however, beefed up its transparency standards for advertisers. Read the details of the new policy here.

The debate over what role, if any, social media platforms play in fact-checking and restricting the dissemination of false or misleading information has been simmering since the spread of “fake news” on social media platforms became a flashpoint of controversial misinformation in the 2016 election. In this case, however, the specific incident that compelled Facebook and Twitter to stake out their starkly different positions was an ad by the Trump campaign that accused former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden of leveraging U.S. aid to Ukraine to discourage a government investigation of his son.

“Google, YouTube and most Internet platforms run these same ads. Most cable networks run these same ads and of course national broadcasters are required by law to run them by FCC regulations,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on a recent earnings call. “And I think that there are good reasons for this. In a democracy, I don’t think it’s right for private companies to censor politicians or the news.”

Political advertising revenues for both companies are relatively small, accounting for just 0.1 percent of Twitter’s total revenue in 2018. Zuckerberg said that such ads are only projected to account for 0.5 percent of Facebook’s total revenue next year.

Mixed reactions and unintended consequences

Democratic leaders ranging from establishment figures like former presidential candidate and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to progressive firebrands like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., applauded Twitter’s decision and called on Facebook to follow suit. However reactions from policy experts, political advertising researchers, advocacy groups, and even some upstart anti-Trump candidates in regions like Kansas have been more circumspect and affirming of Facebook’s decision to continue allowing political ads.

Rather than take a side, Mark Jamison, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, welcomed the diversity of approaches to political advertising on online platforms. 

“It is part of the competitive marketplace that Facebook and Twitter will engage in a public contest over which strategy does better for their users,” Jamison wrote. “We should applaud diversity of approaches. It is concerning when politicians start picking sides because then the most politically powerful win.”

The American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC) acknowledged in a statement that, as a private company, Twitter has the right to decide who it will and won’t do business with, but noted that its no-political-ad policy “flies in the face of the American tradition of major media corporations allowing legitimate organizations to advertise and make their case in elections and policy debates.”

“Twitter’s decision to ban political advertising endangers a campaign’s ability to tell its own story and will lead to a less engaged and less informed electorate,” the AAPC said, adding that if we want to strengthen our democracy, “we should clean up the flow of political advertising, not shut off the tap.”

A CNBC article that interviewed half a dozen political advertising experts found a consensus in favor of more moderate steps than the extremes staked out by Facebook and Twitter. Limiting micro-targeting, for instance, could help smooth out the propensity of political ad-makers to appeal to outrage and stoke division. 

Micro-targeting is “serving up ads or content to these narrowly-sliced segments, personalizing them and taking advantage of vulnerabilities,” Ellen Goodman, a professor at Rutgers Law School specializing in information policy law, told CNBC. “That seems to me like the biggest problem.”

Congress, the one governing body that has the most power to address the issue with new laws governing political advertising in the digital age, has unsurprisingly done little about it. 

“If there were federal regulation about what Facebook had to do like there is about what broadcast networks have to do, that would at least change the public conversation in a pretty significant way,” Nicole Perrin, a senior analyst at eMarketer, told CNBC. Passing such a regulation means it would no longer be on each individual tech company to decide and explain its own policy.

“I don’t see a different way that we stop having this constant fight,” she said.

In the meantime, misinformation online continues to haunt campaign season in the U.S. As the 2020 presidential race heats up, the number of fake political news stories on Facebook is increasing, according to Avaaz, a global advocacy group that tracks misinformation. The group found that 62 percent of these fabricated stories targeted or were critical of Democrats and liberals, while 29 percent went against Republicans or conservatives.

“Every American who cares about free and fair elections in 2020, including the candidates and political parties, should be sounding the alarm about Facebook’s fake news problem,” Avaaz’s campaign director Fadi Quran said in the report.

Wait, what about Google?

Amid the bickering between Facebook and Twitter, Google has largely managed to keep its head down, even though it also ran the Trump campaign’s controversial ad about the Bidens that drew so much criticism of Facebook.

A Google spokesperson told CNBC earlier this month that the company makes no “special exceptions” for political ads because all ads that run on its platform must comply with its ad policies. The spokesperson did not clarify whether that meant political ads are fact-checked to make sure they comply with Google’s “misrepresentation” policy, which doesn’t allow ads that “intend to deceive users.” Also unclear from the spokesperson’s response was why the Trump campaign’s Biden ad, which was based on unsubstantiated claims, didn’t violate these policies.

Grassroots Pulse covers public policy and political issues aimed at engaging highly-active policy makers, donors, and grassroots leaders at the forefront of the political process in America today.

Image Credit Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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