Last week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that the platform will not carry any paid
political ads. He tweeted “We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.” This is primarily to prevent fake advertising from being targeted at users. This does not just include direct advertisements of political parties, but also those involving political issues. These issues could include topics like climate change, rights of minorities, freedom of expression, equality campaigns, campaigns by marginalised people and others.
At about the same time, Facebook said that it would do nothing about fake political ads. This is with the backdrop of the last US elections which were considered manipulated by a huge influx of fake propaganda, including news stories that discussed fake incidents, paid trends based on fake news, and of course, fake ads.
Facebook has recently come under increased fire for failing to curtail fakes, especially given that it has said that
about fake ads being run against Presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son. it would do nothing
On the ubiquitous Facebook platform, while
is explicitly banned, they seem to make an exception for political advertising. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO and founder of Facebook, believes it is not the job of tech platforms to censor politicians, or the news in a democracy, even if they are telling lies. advertising of false claims by commercial products
Facebook’s policy of allowing politicians to run blatantly fake political advertisements has come under fire from most rational quarters. Presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren from the Democratic Party
, last month, to prove a point. And, then went to town about it, to show how a powerful platform can be made to be the incredibly viral disseminator of lies. But, even that has not deterred Facebook from banning political advertisements that tell lies. ran a set of deliberate fake advertisements
For Jack Dorsey, on the other hand, it is a matter of credibility. He
, “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!” tweeted
On the face of it, Jack Dorsey is the man of the moment. The tech billionaire who has stood up to defend democracy from the perils of negative propaganda. And Mark Zuckerberg is cast in the role that he has been holding for the last few years since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke- that of the man who would rather see the world burn than prevent his platform from being used of lies and hate.
While the latter statement may hold water, Twitter’s actions need to be looked at more closely. Banning fake political ads is different from banning all political advertising. Banning all political advertising or political campaigns to prevent fakes is a bit like locking up all women to prevent rape. It is a knee jerk reaction and has no basis in rational behaviour. And, in any case, direct political advertising on social media is a tiny part of the overall propaganda piece that plays out on social media on a daily basis, across various countries and regions.
The problem is not political advertising. The problem is allowing fakes to co-exist with the truth on an equal footing. You cannot have unsubstantiated campaigns to co-exist with campaigns based on fact. The other problem is the economics of campaigning. A ban on political advertising on social media channels will possibly impact the poorest candidates most. Would President Obama, nor President Trump, or indeed Prime Minister Modi, in his pre-2014 campaign, made such waves, but for the drumroll provided by social media campaigning – paid and organic?
And, there is another complication. In a world where troll farms are used and paid per tweet or per post to trend content, would these trending hashtags be seen as paid advertising or organic content? Since Twitter is not the party that is getting paid, they can wash their hands off the lies. But those lies not only exist, they use the platform to spread it. This political action is a bit like Pontius Pilate washing his hands off the problem. And, that is a disastrous idea.
Jack Dorsey has taken the easy way out. The key is not a ban on political advertising. The key is being able to sift the truth from fakes and bury the fakes. Not censor all political advertising.
Harini Calamur writes on politics, gender and her areas of interest are the intersection of technology, media, and audiences. Read Harini Calamur's columns