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'Your turn, Facebook': Twitter's political ad ban raises new questions for Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, on Facebook's impact on the financial services and housing sectors. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, on Facebook's impact on the financial services and housing sectors. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s announcement Wednesday that the social media platform will no longer accept political ads appears to be aimed at avoiding controversy heading into the 2020 election cycle, but experts say it could leave the company facing different but equally vexing complications.

“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. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money,” Dorsey wrote in a series of tweets explaining the policy change.

He argued internet ads should be treated differently than those in other mediums because of factors like machine learning-based optimization, micro-targeting, and concerns about the unchecked flow of misinformation. The new policy will apply globally and it will take effect Nov. 22.

“They are in a tough spot because they are struggling for revenue and just passed up a windfall from the 2020 election, but they have clearly opted to follow a risk avoidance strategy,” said Michael Dennehy, a New Hampshire-based political strategist who served as a senior adviser to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.

According to Scott Talan, a former journalist and politician who now teaches public and strategic communication at American University, the move could reduce Twitter’s role in the nation’s political discourse, for better or worse. Given President Donald Trump’s frequent tweeting, though, it will inevitably hold some importance.

“They will be losing money from not having the ads, of course, but it also changes the value proposition and perception of Twitter as a place for politics and news,” Talan said.

While surprising, the loss of Twitter as an outlet for political ads is unlikely to drastically affect the 2020 presidential race. Candidates’ spending on Twitter so far has amounted to only a small fraction of what they are devoting to advertising on Facebook, which gladly accepts ads from candidates and does not fact-check their content.

If Facebook were to cease allowing political ads, the effect on campaign strategy would be more substantial, said Katherine Haenschen, a professor at Virginia Tech University who has studied the impact of digital political advertising. She has seen little evidence ads on any social media platform are persuading voters, but campaigns are still pouring money into Facebook promotion.

According to The Associated Press, Trump’s reelection campaign has spent more than $20 million on Facebook ads and less than $300,000 on Twitter. Former Vice President Joe Biden has paid $2.8 million for Facebook ads and about $600,000 on Twitter.

Despite its seemingly ubiquitous presence in media coverage, Twitter is only used by about 20% of Americans, primarily those who earn more, have more education, live in urban areas, and are already likely to vote.

“It’s still, to some degree, a relatively niche platform,” Haenschen said, noting Facebook is used by about 70% of the country.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has faced a rising tide of criticism over a policy that would allow candidates to say pretty much whatever they want, even if it is blatantly untrue and has been deemed false by the site’s third-party fact-checkers. The company notes broadcast networks are required by law to follow a similar policy for TV ads.

Twitter’s decision not to allow political ads strikes a stark contrast with Facebook’s stance. As social media sites aggressively combat misinformation to avoid the mistakes they made in 2016, Dorsey suggested there is a paradox in allowing lies in paid ads.

“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 adwell...they can say whatever they want!’” he wrote.

Without mentioning Twitter, Zuckerberg made clear he disagrees on a quarterly earnings call Wednesday afternoon.

“In a democracy, I don't think it's right for private companies to censor politicians or the news,” he said. “And although I've considered whether we should not carry these ads in the past and I’ll continue to do so, on balance so far I've thought we should continue. Ads can be an important part of voice -- especially for candidates and advocacy groups that the media might not otherwise cover so they can get their message into debates.”

Acknowledging the company is going to face a lot of criticism for the policy in the next year, Zuckerberg insisted it is driven by a belief in the principle that political speech is important, not by money or partisanship. Political ads are expected to make up less than 0.5% of Facebook’s revenue in 2020.

“Frankly, if our goal were trying to make either side happy, then we're not doing a very good job because I'm pretty sure everyone is frustrated with us,” he added.

Critics say Zuckerberg’s justification for his position on political ads wrongly conflates allowing politicians to post freely on the site with taking money from them to artificially amplify their voice beyond their followers.

“I admire your deep belief in free speech... But this can’t possibly be the outcome you and I want, to have crazy lies pumped into the water supply that corrupt the most important decisions we make together,” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin wrote in an open letter to Zuckerberg in The New York Times Thursday.

If Dorsey intended to shield Twitter from the partisan bickering over social media ads that is sure to get much louder in the months ahead, it might not work. Twitter will formally announce its new political advertising policy by Nov. 15, but executives are already facing a lot of questions about what will qualify as “political” ads and how the site will define issue ads.

Vijaya Gadde, head of legal, policy, trust, and safety at Twitter, described issue ads as “Ads that advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance (such as: climate change, healthcare, immigration, national security, taxes).” There will be exceptions, including ads advocating voter registration, but some say drawing the line will be tougher than the company thinks.

“The difference between patrolling the interior of the politics world, and patrolling its borders, so to speak, may appear significant — but it’s really just a different kind of trouble. Twitter is entering a world of pain,” wrote Devin Coldewey of TechCrunch.

According to Haenschen, Twitter is sidestepping the debate over whether tech companies should be arbiters of what is true and false. Instead, though, it is stumbling into a debate over who decides what is political or not and what is issue advocacy or not, and there are no easy answers.

“To some degree, it’s like playing whack-a-mole,” she said.

Twitter is also facing blowback from President Trump and his supporters. Trump’s reelection campaign framed the announcement as further proof of its unsubstantiated claim that social media companies are biased against conservatives.

"This is yet another attempt to silence conservatives," campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement, "since Twitter knows President Trump has the most sophisticated online program ever known."

However, other Republicans argued the announcement was bad news for Democrats.

“HUGE hit to Democrats who do significantly more advertising on Twitter than we do,” said Matt Whitlock, a National Republican Senatorial Committee senior adviser, on Twitter.

Democratic candidates seemed unconcerned about the consequences of the change, applauding Dorsey for taking a firm stand against misinformation and implicitly, some said, against Trump.

“We appreciate that Twitter recognizes that they should not permit disproven smears, like those from the Trump campaign, to appear in advertisements on their platform,” said a spokesman for Biden’s campaign, which recently appealed to social media sites to take down a Trump ad accusing Biden of corruption without evidence.

Several Democratic campaigns have slammed Facebook for running Trump ads with no regard for their accuracy, and they urged the company to reconsider in light of Twitter’s announcement.

“Your turn, Facebook,” said Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on Twitter.

(If you are viewing on a mobile app, click here to take the poll.)

Despite the largely partisan reaction to Twitter’s policy, it is not clear that this change helps President Trump or hurts his Democratic opponents. Due to Trump’s enormous fundraising advantage and sophisticated digital operation, Dennehy said the president has the most to lose.

“The Democrats simply cannot compete with the president on Twitter. So, from that perspective Republicans have reason to be skeptical about the move,” he said.

However, Trump has tens of millions more followers than even the most Twitter-savvy Democratic contenders and nearly anything he tweets is guaranteed to be shared widely by the media for free. If other candidates can no longer pay to boost their reach, they could easily be drowned out by the noise he regularly creates.

“Trump has benefited more than any other person from Twitter, so his complaining fall flat to me,” Talan said.

The repercussions of the policy shift will be felt far beyond the presidential race, and it could become harder for lesser-known candidates in state and local elections to reach voters. That could end up benefiting incumbents across the country.

“Many smaller campaigns have only used digital advertising given the relatively low-cost, efficient manner in which it can be targeted,” Dennehy said. “This takes one platform off the table. Smaller campaigns can only hope that Twitter will be the only platform to make this decision.”

Dorsey recognized that risk, but he maintained paid ads are not necessary for interest in a candidate or an idea to spread on social media.

“We have witnessed many social movements reach massive scale without any political advertising. I trust this will only grow,” he wrote Wednesday.

While much of the recent debate has focused on Trump ads that contained dubious allegations, Haenschen stressed the problem is not likely to be unique to his campaign. During a House hearing last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., pressed Zuckerberg over whether she could hypothetically run ads on Facebook claiming Republicans endorsed her Green New Deal proposal.

A liberal advocacy group tried that, editing a clip of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to look like he supported the progressive climate change policy. Facebook removed their ad, not because it was false but because it came from an organization rather than a campaign.

That effort was intended to demonstrate the flaws in the site’s policies, but it could also be a sign of what is to come if both parties decide to take full advantage of Zuckerberg’s commitment to facilitating any and all paid political speech by candidates in future elections.

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“We can’t assume false ads are going to be an asymmetric problem,” Haenschen said.

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