On October 30, 2019, Twitter announced that it is no longer allowing political ads on the platform. When it was announced, this came as a shock to many. After all of the controversy surrounding social media platforms during the 2016 US Presidential Election, it seemed like no major policy revisions would be implemented across any of the major platforms.
Twitter, however, has decided to make a change ahead of the 2020 US Presidential Election. Whether or not it will be better for users or not is to be determined. The official rules won’t be published until November 15, but this hasn’t stopped Democrats and Republicans from criticizing the changes.
Why The Changes?
In a series of tweets, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey explained the reasoning behind the decision. According to Dorsey, “A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet.” He also wrote, “Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money.”
Elizabeth Warren’s Reaction
US Senator Elizabeth Warren published a tweet on November 5 that was critical of the policy changes. Warren’s focus wasn’t on how it might impact 2020 US Presidential Election candidates like herself. Instead, she focused on how the political ad ban could actually lead to the spread of more disinformation from companies.
Mitch McConnell’s Reaction
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that the new policy will “not bolster our democracy. It would degrade democracy. It would amplify the advantage of media companies, celebrities, and certain other established elites while denying an important tool to the Americans who disagree with them.”
He also said, “[It] would just amplify the already privileged speakers who already posses multimillion-dollar platforms. It would just help clear the field for those elites by denying the same tools to fledgling speakers who are not already famous.”
An Ad Ban Doesn’t Solve Important Platform Issues
Just because prominent Democrats and Republicans disagree with the changes doesn’t mean Twitter’s decision is 100% beneficial or 100% detrimental for users.
At least two major issues could possibly remain unresolved.
First, as Elizabeth Warren points out, potentially banning environmental groups from posting ads related to topics like climate change shows that the restrictions could be too far-reaching. Over the years, climate change has somehow been misconstrued to be a concern exclusively for Democrats. In reality, it’s a problem shared by everyone, regardless of political identity.
The guidelines for determining what is considered to be a political ad vs. a non-political ad will have to be well-defined. Who is the ultimate decision-maker in this process? Hopefully, we’ll have more clarity when the guidelines are published on November 15.
Second, while some people might not want to view paid political ads, this wasn’t the biggest issue among social media platforms during the 2016 US Presidential Election. The real trouble stemmed from politically-themed, organic meme accounts that gained large followings and attempted to discourage voter turnout. Although the ad policy change will prevent these accounts from making promoted tweets, it doesn’t impact organic content.
Twitter is seemingly doing its part to ensure that the issues it faced in the 2016 election don’t happen again in the future. In theory, this could be a milestone decision that influences how other major social media platforms treat political content. However, there are also concerns that groups focused on key issues like climate change might lose the ability to have their content seen and voices heard.
What’s even more important is how Twitter and other social media platforms deal with rampant disinformation, regardless of whether content is politically themed or not.