Since social media emerged at the turn of the century, it has democratized the free expression of ideas, but inevitably not in the way that its creators and early proponents envisioned. As its limitations have become increasingly apparent, it is unsurprising that one of the current heavyweights of the social media establishment has decided to preemptively self-regulate.
Twitter recently announced that the platform would no longer run political advertising stating that, “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.” After explaining that civic discourse is being distorted by “machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes,” Twitter’s CEO ended with, “A final note. This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle.”
A description of the underlying problem is simple enough to tweet. The professional gatekeepers of traditional media used to (imperfectly) sort through the opinions, facts, half-truths, and lies of political discourse. Social media now allows this sifting process to be bypassed by sending unchecked political messages directly to a selected receptive audience. Truth and public consensus suffer as a result.
Whatever the motivation, Twitter’s policy change should be commended. Whether it becomes a watershed moment remains to be seen, but it presents an opportunity to reflect on the larger issue of the role of money in politics.
The US Supreme Court Citizens United decision of 2010 loosened restrictions on paid political speech, yet research and common sense tell us that money buys influence. This is no surprise to other advanced democracies where a combination of restrictions on political donations, spending, and political advertising attempt to minimize the influence of money on politics. While international comparisons of political advertising suggest that restricting political ads does not guarantee a functional democracy, some limits are a requirement for one.
The protection of free speech by the First Amendment is a fundamental part of American culture, but growing inequality suggests that American democracy is flawed — most people would not actively choose to live in a new Gilded Age. A new conception of free political speech should be considered.
There are multiple definitions of free. While free speech is generally understood to be freedom of speech or unrestrained speech, perhaps free speech interpreted as speech without cost is just as vital to a functional democracy. If wealthy individuals or organizations can buy an issue ad, but the average citizen cannot, there is no equality in freedom of expression and society becomes inherently less democratic. This has always been true, but with the increasing wealth gap in America, the outsized voice of large corporations and wealthy individuals in Washington DC has become deafening. This suggests that political speech should only be protected if it can be conveyed at trivial or no cost (e.g., newspaper op-eds, Medium posts, and unpaid tweets).
We should not have to rely on the philosopher kings of Silicon Valley to boost the signal to noise ratio of public discourse, but the Twitter ad ban is a good starting point to explore a more realistic conception of free political speech in the US.