Twitter, the online platform that turned cyberspace into an aviary, achirp with tweets, sure knows how to differentiate itself. On Wednesday, its chief executive officer, Jack Dorsey, tweeted its decision to reject all political advertising, globally. The reach of political messages, Twitter believes, should be “earned", not “bought". Such messages, in its view, should get around by virtue—if that’s the word—of their own appeal, via retweets and other viral means. Commercial ads are still welcome, though, as their impact is far less. In portraying ads that shape electoral outcomes as a potential threat to civic discourse, Dorsey endorses the qualms of those who are jittery about politics getting warped by social media in this age of post-truth. With so many lies masquerading as truth and perceptions at the mercy of deep-fake videos, algorithms and propagandists can easily conspire to warp the views of millions. So goes the anxiety over fake news, something that all social media firms are under pressure to act against. “For instance," goes one of Dorsey’s tweets, “it’s not credible for us to say, ‘We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad… well… they can say whatever they want!’." The tweet ends with a winky-face emoji, all the better to vivify the hypocrisy being refrained from. As a principled stance, this is laudable. As a strategy to position Twitter as an app that actually cares about democracy, it’s even more so.
With its ban on political ads, Twitter has thrown down not just a gauntlet, but a whole bird-bath for rivals to pick up. Just the other day, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was heard saying at a US Congressional hearing that his company would probably not turn down a hypothetical ad assigning credit for the idea of a ‘new green deal’ to Republicans, rather than Democrats. While Facebook tom-toms the primacy of free expression to justify its policy, Twitter argues that this is about whether online reach should be on sale for political purposes. Observers in offline media, no less dependent on ad revenues, may wonder what the fuss is all about. Most have guidelines on what’s okay and what’s not. Ad agencies have their own code of ethics, too. Sometimes, fine judgement calls have to be taken. But online, there is minimal human intervention in the allocation of ads. Also, audiences seem far less discerning than the classic market model assumes. “Buyer beware" does not seem to work. The trouble is, if it doesn’t, it would call all forms of advertising into question, even pose new dilemmas. Shouldn’t people be granted the ability to judge ads for themselves? If the motives of advertisers are to determine access to audiences, who else may be barred next? How justified are these distinctions?
None of that will be relevant if Twitter’s new policy fails to catch on. What it will achieve remains hazy. In any case, its bar on political ads might just push politicians and parties to adopt surrogate advertising, with the same material popping onto our screens in the guise of commercial ads. For all the avowals against online deception, which way social media turns could well go by the sums of money at stake. By one crude estimate, Twitter gets less than a cent for every dollar that Facebook earns on politically-aimed ads. Fighting fake news is not equally costly for everybody.