Three Reasons Twitter was Wrong to Ban Political Ads

Clare O'Donoghue Velikić
7 min readNov 5, 2019

When Jack Dorsey announced on Wednesday he was banning political ads on Twitter, I found myself uncomfortably sharing the view of those whose politics are usually ‘across the divide’ from my own. Despite the unenviable company, though, I remain convinced that the ban is a mistake — and not just because I’m an ex-Facebook political ads shill, I swear.

Here are the three reasons why I think banning political ads on Twitter was the wrong move:

1. Banning paid political ads encourages polarising and populist rhetoric on social media

For years, those of us in digital marketing have been telling the world how social media has become ubiquitous and integral to people’s lives. In Ireland, where I live, people spend an average of 6 hours a day online, of which 2 hours are spent on social media. Most people report social networks as being one of their primary (if not only) sources of news. Election campaigning needs to take place on social media. For democracy to function and people to feel engaged with elections, political campaigns need to be able to share their names and their messages at scale with the people who will turn out to vote for them. This used to be achieved via print media and television — either in paid (ads) or ‘organic’ format (PR / journalist relationships); now this election messaging needs to be delivered via social media too. This will not change.

What has changed, however, is the ability for political campaigners (as well as commercial advertisers) to reach people organically, i.e. without paying for ads. Back in the ‘glory days’ of the start of this decade, social was being heralded as providing a means for marketers (or campaigners) to reach people for free. Post a few cat pictures and a ‘hello Friday!’ word search and you’d get great engagement and viral distribution for nothing. Any commercial marketer will tell you that those days are gone; social is now, mostly, ‘pay to play’.

In Politics, there have been some campaigns and individuals who buck this trend. Some, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or, here in Ireland, the ‘In Her Shoes’ referendum campaign, are highly-skilled at and well-suited to using social media, and their content performs incredibly well organically. These campaigners don’t need to rely on paid ads to reach people: the algorithm will reward their content with further distribution because it knows (from engagement rates) that people appreciate seeing it in their social feeds.

But not every politician can have the natural, millenial social literacy of @AOC; not every campaign can have the emotional gut-impact of the storytelling of ‘In Her Shoes’. A lot of political campaigns, especially those from mainstream parties from centre left to centre right, tend to be a little vanilla, a little bland. And this is a good thing; to allow for a plurality of voices, a pan-spectrum spread of representation, we need the more moderate, vanilla campaigns too.

For the other way to secure yourself free, organic social media distribution is to chase outrage, or to ‘tell it like it is, without being politically correct’ as many populist campaigns purport to these days. Take the current President of the United States, for example. Because ordinary people react to the sort of polarising rhetoric used by such individuals and campaigns — whether because they agree or disagree with them — social algorithms will again reward this content with further distribution. The loud, divisive voices are amplified; the middle-of-the-road, vanilla voices remain muted.

So essentially, without paid ads, the ways for a political campaign to reach voters with their messages are

(a) to already have a large organic and highly-engaged voter base on social media (and this is only the case for the largest and most popular incumbents, who themselves often grew that fan-base using Paid ads),

(b) to be incredibly adept at using social platforms, which can be hard for most politicians, or

(c) to use polarising populist rhetoric to fire people up, on both sides — because it doesn’t really matter whether everyone agrees with you or not; in organic social, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

2. The shady political money isn’t going away, it will just get shadier

Much like the failures of Prohibition in the 20s or the War on Drugs today, the money behind shady political ads on social media isn’t going to disappear just because advertising is banned. The money is there; those behind it want it spent. Which then raises the question, where will it be spent? Buying others’ data? On auto-tweeting bots? On fake-news-farms in the balkans? By stopping campaigns from spending on legitimate political advertising, shady money will go underground, it won’t just go away.

On the flip side, those authentic grassroots campaigns who need to use social media to crowdsource their own funding (since they don’t receive it from dubious sources) will no longer have an easy way to fundraise online, so inevitably their other offline campaign activities will become curtailed too, yet again benefitting the ‘bad’ campaigns to the detriment of the ‘good’.

More and more states are these days recognising that banning all drugs doesn’t prevent their sale and purchase, but leaves the trade in the hands of dangerous people, with profoundly negative impacts both for individual lives and societies. Legalising and regulating some, if not all, drugs has been seen to have positive impacts in most states in which it has been tested. We know that hard-line prohibition does not work when there’s money involved, but instead hands the reins of control to the bad guys.

This is what will occur with campaign financing. Bad campaigns, who might have run bad political advertising, WILL spend their money elsewhere, in more clandestine and inscrutable digital spaces. Keeping finances in (self-)regulated, publicly-accessible advertising fora, via legitimate companies allows for a degree of oversight and analysis which will disappear as financing moves into the digital shadows.

3. Big Tech shouldn’t get away with choosing the lazy or cheap option

As any Ad Sales leader in a big tech firm will attest, there’s relatively little money in political advertising compared to commercial marketing, certainly outside the US. The drama which politics causes social media firms isn’t really worth it, in revenue terms. And coming up with solutions to the challenges posed by political campaigning on social media — such as fact-checking content, ID verification, location-gating, creating public libraries of advertising, etc. — all cost money; possibly more money than the firms will ever earn from political ads themselves. It’s also hard, and complicated, and likely to require constant adaptation and review on a regular basis. It must make many Big Tech executives wonder — especially those focused on the bottom line — is allowing political advertising worth it at all?

But if Big Tech firms truly believe the narrative we have pushed to the world for the last ten years — that social media is essential to the conduct of our daily lives, including our media consumption — then there is a moral and social obligation on these companies to make the effort and to spend the money to get this thing right. We have opened Pandora’s box, the political genie is out of the bottle, as illustrated by points 1 and 2. Simply banning political advertising is the lazy and cheap way to attempt to close the box, or re-cork the bottle, rather than having to come up with complex and costly alternative remedies.

Call me a cynic, perhaps it’s the years spent in politics, or ad sales, but the timing of Dorsey’s announcement (immediately before a strong quarterly earnings call for Facebook, following a disappointing quarter for Twitter) makes me question his true motivation. Is this really an ethically-motivated decision to try to help fix our bruised democracy? Or is it a cheap and lazy way to deflect the inevitable criticism coming to social media firms over the next year (with the added bonus of getting a dig in at their largest rival)? Certainly the near-universal celebration of the Dorsey’s decision — despite the fact it will cost Twitter very little, or may actually save it money and effort — smells like a great PR win for the company.

I care passionately about democracy, about the democratic participation of ordinary people, and I’m horrified by some of the changes we’ve seen in our world over the last few years, with the rise of extremism and polarisation of societal narratives. Certainly, the changes brought to media consumption and campaigning methodologies are somewhat to blame for this. But I am convinced there are better steps big tech should be taking to try to ameliorate their impact on politics, rather than outright bans of paid political advertising. I’ll suggest three of those steps next.

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Clare O'Donoghue Velikić

Ex-Facebook Government & Politics marketing. Now doing freelance digital consulting for causes I believe in. www.odvdigital.com.