Paid political ads aren’t the problem. Our perceptions are
If advertising bans don’t help counter foreign interference, will they at least contribute to healthier and more authentic domestic discourse? Dorsey’s argument that “political message reach should be earned, not bought,” sounds reasonable enough. However, if you expect advertising bans to empower outsider candidates against monetary interests, you may be disappointed. Ryan Grim, a political writer for The Intercept and author of We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to AOC, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement, described Dorsey’s announcement as “a big blow to the progressives and a blessing for “Candidates for the Big Bucks.” On Twitter and Facebook, Grim said in a tweet, “Candidates compile and organize lists of supporters, which they then turn into donors and volunteers. If only Twitter bans advertising, it harms progressive candidates , but it wouldn’t be fatal. If Facebook did that too, it would be almost fatal in this ecosystem. This is how unknown candidates find supporters, persuade them to add themselves to their email list / contact details, and then organize them. “
This may seem counter-intuitive: advertising bans will apply across the board, and one might expect a level playing field to work to the greatest advantage of those without deep pockets. But ads are most valuable to outsiders and grassroots movements who don’t yet have a large audience or high profile. When paid advertisements are not available as a mechanism to break through and gain initial attention and support, the importance of the people and institutions that already have large audiences is augmented and anchored. The official Twitter accounts of the national party committees – @GOP and @TheDemocrats – have millions of followers. Eliminating an alternative way of reaching out to voters will tend to increase reliance on these institutions and their large microphones.
Even more worrying is the possibility that lesser-known candidates would compensate for the loss of paid presence by tailoring their messages more aggressively to the spread of viruses. What we know about the type of content most likely to go viral – the type of “reach” that is most easily “earned” – isn’t comforting: it’s provocative, sensational, outrageous, and extreme. In fact, that’s one of the reasons online misinformation is such a serious problem: surprising and fancy conspiracy theories or fake news headlines attract attention and spread quickly. This also applies to paid advertisements. Hence, the incentive to produce increasingly polarizing rhetoric – designed to provoke anger, not deliberation – will be strong, regardless of whether or not social media platforms introduce Twitter-style bans. But these incentives only increase when campaigns and external political groups are forced to rely solely on virality.
It gets even more tricky when you consider that the Twitter ban includes not only traditional campaign advertising, but also the rather nebulous category of “issue ads”. This means that a tremendous number of activist groups from all ideological lines, many of whom may not consider themselves “political advertisements”, will find that they have lost an important means of raising awareness – especially when trying to get their message across to groups who are not yet politically engaged and may not know how the issue affects them. As tech writer Will Oremus argues, what qualifies as “political advertising” is itself controversial, and politics often permeate even normal advertising. Energy companies, for example, like to run elaborate advertising campaigns to label themselves environmentally friendly – a message that, whether explicitly or not, implies that there is little need for new guidelines or regulations to reduce the environmental impact of their operations. Such ads are unlikely to be classified as “spending ads” – although an environmental group campaign that contradicts this type of green branding would be likely. In other words, an advertising directive aimed at a level playing field could in practice have the opposite effect.
Political advertising bans work partly because they are so simple and (apparently) straightforward, partly because they flatter our democratic self-image as wise and informed citizens. When we have consumed and shared misinformation, we like to think that it is because some outside force forced these messages on us. It is harder to consider the alternate explanation: that we are simply more attuned to using information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs than information that corrects them – in other words, we are simply unable to to know the truth.
Addressing the real problem will be far more difficult. In short, we would need to figure out how to combat the organic sharing of misinformation by ordinary users without turning platforms into invasive language intermediaries. Avoiding this difficult task by promoting a superficially neutral advertising ban should be seen for what it is: an exit.
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