The biggest threat to the current world order – liberal democracy – is the same thing that allows people to share innocent videos of cats. Social media has given people the ability to communicate with audiences around the world. Since the 2016 American Presidential election, we have all borne witness to what bad actors can do when they want to sow discord – with catastrophic results. Misinformation campaigns on social media are as responsible as any other global trend for the election of Trump, and from what we are seeing over the past three years, the problem is only getting bigger.
Twitter has become the first social network to take a stand by banning all political advertising the platform.
First, Twitter’s stance is admirable. The modern age of social networking is a never-before-seen context that is having serious negative effects on democracy, allowing the purposeful diffusion of misinformation that has sabotaged elections around the world.
Twitter itself is the bullhorn of Trump, amplifying his constant tirade of lies and misinformation. Twitter has long resisted the calls of banning him under the banner of free speech – even though it’s hard to ignore that in many ways Trump made Twitter relevant again. So maybe in one way Twitter is responding to this pressure by banning all political advertising.
But on the other hand, comparing Twitter to Facebook is not possible given the different ways that people buy ads on the platform. It is not fair to lump them into the same group at all. Facebook is a self-service platform where anyone can run any ad that only gets flagged if there is some sort of visible infraction to Facebook’s rules like nudity or too much text. Twitter does not have this ability, meaning that people have to book their media through Twitter, and there is a lot less of it to sift through.
Twitter resembles more of a traditional media outlet that can take the time to vet content before a campaign goes live. That time is necessary when misinformation campaigns are often hard to spot or designed to inflame passions about a certain subject that might not seem political at all at first glance.
If Twitter relied on an self-service platform like Facebook, I doubt that we would have seen them do anything because like Facebook it would be too hard to control.
The real issue is how to identify what political advertising is. Gone are the days when a flag and the Presidential ticket popped up in our feeds. Since we have become increasingly numb to advertising, everything is increasingly inflammatory. Most political ads today are about not voting for the other candidate than delivering arguments about why someone should vote for you.
Eliminating political advertising does no equal eliminating political influence on the platform. Twitter does take down bot accounts that only exist to spread misinformation, yet there are still millions of real people with real accounts who happily share misinformation to confirm their worldview and actively subvert the democratic order. What to do about them?
The fact is that no system is going to be perfect and even attempting to tackle the beast should be encouraged. By taking a stand Twitter is at least positioning themselves against the abuse of platforms by foreign actors with deep pockets. Let’s hope that other social networks take the hint.