Twitter’s ban on political advertising harms our democracy
Twitter recently announced that it would no longer allow political advertising on its digital platform. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey defined political ads as being sponsored by candidates or discussing political issues; Advertising that addresses elections, candidates, parties and openly political content would be prohibited. Implementation of this decision, if at all possible, will have dire consequences for American democracy.
Defining a political advertisement is almost impossible
Given the role of government in modern society, it is difficult to decouple campaign activities from thematic advocacy. Healthcare, education, business, entertainment, and religion are all intertwined with politics. Different policies on these issues will lead to significant changes in daily life. Whether you can afford health insurance, send your children to a better school, buy imported goods cheaply, or tax-deduct donations to your local church, mosque, or synagogue, are legitimate parts of democratic discourse.
It is vital that citizens and civil society organizations with an interest in these issues have the opportunity to express their views. As an essential part of their constitutional rights, they need the ability to support or reject candidates based on their political positions. For example, Planned Parenthood can run ads in support of a candidate who is in favor of abortion law, while a church can run ads that oppose such a candidate. The former group considers the advertisement to be health-related while the latter group regards it as a religious advertisement, but in both cases it is a political advertisement. There are numerous examples like this one that illustrate how difficult it is to determine whether an ad is political or not. The inherent difficulty of defining campaign interests and separating them from advocacy makes it almost impossible to effectively implement such a ban.
Social media helps underfunded candidates
Even if social media companies could successfully define election advertising, the benefits of such a policy are unclear. The decision does not appear to be a well-thought-out policy, but rather a knee-jerk reaction to criticism of the role of social media in politics.
The advances in our ability to collect and analyze data have enabled us to run much more efficient marketing campaigns on social media platforms. It does this by targeting users who are more interested in and more likely to respond to the subject of advertising, a practice known as microtargeting.
With its low cost and high precision, microtargeting technology has quickly become a business and political imperative. It enables candidates with limited financial resources to get their message across to specific audiences at a fraction of the cost of traditional communication channels. The ban on the use of such technologies effectively secures elections for the candidates with the greatest financial support from corporations and super-PACs that can fund expensive marketing campaigns.
These technologies have already changed the national political landscape. In his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama pioneered the use of big data and microtargeting on social media to improve his chances of winning the presidency. Recently, a record number of women, Muslims and people of color were elected to the 116th Congress. Many of these previously unknown politicians were able to win office despite their limited financial resources thanks to their effective use of social media. America had its first African American President and its most diverse House of Representatives thanks to social media and microtargeting.
Banning Twitter will not eliminate disinformation
The most plausible criticism of microtargeting is that it helps spread disinformation. The fact that such advertisements are aimed at a select group of individuals means that the public will not be aware of the inaccurate content and have no opportunity to refute it. Imagine a candidate creating a misleading attack ad about the adversary, targeting only a select number of people who are most likely to believe the baseless allegations. The other contender may not learn of the existence of the ad in order to have a chance to defend themselves against the attack.
This is an important issue as it is very likely to lead to unfair results. However, the ban on microtargeting will not solve the problem for two reasons. First, other social media platforms allow microtargeting so ads are relocated to these places. The Twitter ban won’t have a significant impact on the election as long as other companies offer digital channels.
Second, microtargeting is not just limited to online platforms. While all social media companies have banned election advertising, candidates can target specific groups of voters via mail, radio, cable television and online video. The incumbent and financially strong candidates already have an enormous amount of personal data from voters. You can easily analyze this data and approach voters through alternative channels. That would exacerbate the disinformation problem.
More importantly, microtargeting voters outside of social media is significantly more expensive. The high cost of microtargeting inhibits the ability of new candidates to use this technique and gives the well-funded candidates the upper hand. Not only will established and well-funded candidates benefit from traditional media channels, but they will also be the only ones who can afford to use them.
The problem with disseminating disinformation in micro-targeted advertising is not efficiency, but a lack of transparency. If we inform the public, and especially the political candidates, about the micro-targeted advertising during the elections, they will have the opportunity to refute the false advertisements and defend themselves by the same means with which they are attacked. Although such data sets will be very large, our advances in computer technology and data analysis will allow candidates to easily search the data sets, flag those with incorrect information, and respond to them with their own message.
We already have readily available databases of commercials that are broadcast on television or radio. It is technically easy for social media companies to create similar databases about political advertising on their platforms. Congress has already taken steps in this direction through bills such as the Honest Ads Act, which mandate an “online platform” [to] Keep a complete record of all purchase inquiries and make them available in machine-readable format for online public viewing [political advertisements] on such an online platform. ”Congress should provide more detailed information on political ad purchases and instruct social media companies to include information on the content and target audience of the ads in their databases. In this way, any candidate, journalist or interested citizen can easily find out about the ad on social media and reach the same target group with appropriate counter messages. Improved ad transparency would help fight disinformation and give voters the information they need to protect their interests.