As big tech establishments twist the internet in their own image, further monopolizing the culture, commerce, and political propaganda for their own business interests, the emerging feud between Facebook and Twitter’s CEOs over the banning of political ads is changing how we should consider modern digital politics.
What started out as a simple public relations disagreement between over marketing bans turned into a drastic policy change from Twitter’s Jack Dorsey to cancel all paid political advertising across the globe as of November 15th. Mark Zuckerberg, who testified before Congress to address anti-trust concerns with Facebook, reaffirmed his company’s stance that “we need to be careful about adopting more and more rules” surrounding political speech as “it’s [not] right for private companies to censor politicians or the news.”
“A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet,” Dorsey counter-argued in his extensive Twitter thread, noting political messages can only be earned through grassroots user engagement, not bought through astroturf promotions. “Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money. Internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions.”
“Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse,” he continued, “such as machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale. Some might argue our actions today could favor incumbents, but we have witnessed many social movements reach a massive scale without any political advertising. This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle. It’s worth stepping back in order to address.”
It should be noted this most recent ban doesn’t broadly censor politicians or the press outright, it simply prevents all campaigns from paying platforms to market their political material. In recent months, the kings of social media have drifted in treating politics as a monetized bloodsport or forbidden trade. Facebook has opted for a more laissez-faire approach, maintaining a pro-lying, in-bed relationship with the elites through their preventing of ads fact-checking, their refusal to ban politicians if they violate terms of services, their inability to curb foreign influence networks and protecting their political racket under the guise of freedom of (dis)information, even against internal employee protests which demand accountability.
Twitter, while similar in their two-tier administrative justice and apologia for the president, acknowledges the funding puts their judgment into a compromised position, forcing them to cease the political marketing field altogether. This isn’t without fundamental loopholes, however. As noted by TechCrunch writers Natasha Lomas and Devin Coldewey, Twitter will still have to independently judge what is and is not a “political ad”. The piece draws an example on climate change — an obviously political issue for environmentalists like activist Greta Thunberg and Rep. AOC — where their messages on science could be suppressed. By contrast, big oil ads promoting status quo polluting brands could also be considered politically neutral by simply existing in the private market, not the public space.
Unlike Facebook’s proposed supreme court of administration — which likely won’t judge on such company ads decisions —Twitter’s approval would still have to come down to low-level employees serving their executives' interests, so long as they have the appearance of an overall ads ban. Even if we assume both social media platforms are working on good faith, it’s a question of whether they can even determine which posts are grassroots, government SIOPS or grey subjects, as around 50,000 Russian accounts swarmed these platforms during the 2016 election, coordinating literal black lives matter and anti-fascist events from an entire country away.
Outside the scope of the Russia scandal, there’s the matter of a recent research paper showing Facebook and Twitter ad posts do play a role in helping new down-ballot candidates over TV ads, the fact ad companies can legally skirt Twitter as the middle man and pay influencers to promote organic tweets, organise bots to circulate their message through techno astroturfing and difficult infrastructure to actually determine which ads are issue-based. Twitter removing itself from some corrupting influences is good, recognizing “freedom of speech is not the same as freedom of reach”, but let’s not lose track of how ads can take advantage of the situation. Nor can Twitter can’t run away from its problems.
Even where Facebook remains an unregulated dumping ground for advertising, we’re seeing two sides of the self-regulation tech industry failing reign in their monster. “Zuckerberg wants us to believe that one must be for or against free speech with no nuance, complexity or cultural specificity, despite running a company that’s drowning in complexity,” writes Siva Vaidhyanathan, a cultural historian for The Guardian, responding to Zuckerberg’s testimony as a logical fallacy for distraction. “He wants our discussions to be as abstract and idealistic as possible. He wants us not to look too closely at Facebook itself.”
Thank you for reading. This article was published for TrigTent, a bipartisan media platform for political and social commentary. Bailey Steen is a journalist, editor, and designer from Australia. You can read their work on Medium and previous publications such as Janks Reviews and Newslogue.
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