Ahead of the US presidential elections in 2020 and following growing concerns over disinformation campaigns and freedom of expression on the internet, social media companies have started to demonstrate their commitments and efforts towards maintaining democracy and a fair election.
Last week, Twitter made the decision to ban all political ads globally, as announced by CEO Jack Dorsey. The CEO claimed that “paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimised and targeted political messages on people,” as he explained the company’s stance on political advertising.
According to Twitter’s CFO Ned Segal, the ban will have little effect on the company’s revenue, as he said Twitter made less than $3 million from political ads in last year’s cycle, which equals roughly 0.1% of its $3 billion in total 2018 revenue. “This decision was based on principle, not money,” he said.
The new policy will not only affect politicians and candidates, but also advocacy groups, including different entities from various points on the political spectrum “that advocate for legislative issues of national importance” such as abortion and gun control. Nevertheless, some content will be allowed, such as advertisements that promote voter registration.
Some campaigners have said the Twitter ban could make it more difficult for campaigners to reach a younger and more diverse group of voters, who consume social media on a more frequent basis.
While the announcement was applauded by popular figures like Democrat congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who said that “not allowing for paid disinformation is one of the most basic, ethical decisions a company can make”, it was criticised by others, including the current president Trump campaign.
However, it is important to note that the ban only applies for paid content — not organic posts by users. According to Shannon McGregor, a researcher on political communication, social media and public opinion, the ban policy will not make much difference to the Trump campaign: “The last person who needs Twitter ads is Trump. My research indicates that upwards of 80% of Trump tweets end up in news stories, earning him massive amounts of media exposure,” the researcher wrote in the Guardian.
Facebook takes an opposing stance
A few days before Twitter announced the ban policy, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg had made clear that his company has no fact-checking tools for political campaigns and no plans to implement any in the near future, claiming that Facebook is a platform for freedom of expression.
“I believe strongly and I believe that history supports that free expression has been important for driving progress and building more inclusive societies around the world,” Zuckerberg said.
Zuckerberg’s announcement follows the news that Facebook agreed to pay a £500,000 fine to the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Officer due to its involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, linked to the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Advertising is the highest source of revenue for Facebook. In 2017, nearly 90 percent of the company’s revenue came from digital advertisements, of which political advertising is a sub-segment.
Facebook estimates 2.7 billion people around the world are using its platforms: Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or Messenger each month, with more than two billion using at least one of the platforms daily.
Social media advertising is growing overall, especially mobile advertising. Last year, social media advertising revenue grew 30.6%. Social media advertising includes all ad revenue generated by social networks or business networks such as Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Ad spending in the social media advertising segment amounts to US$89,905m in 2019.
The need for regulatory bodies to step in
The question of freedom of expression in social media is indeed a controversial one: in the case of advertising, this is paid content promoted to amplify the reach of its audience, not merely an organic post which has no financial implication for any user.
The announcement of the new policies on social media sparked discussion around the self-regulating mechanisms of social media companies, and questions the role of regulatory bodies in imposing stricter policies and regulating the vast digital advertising market.
“The problem is that companies shouldn’t be self-regulating. And the solution isn’t to ban political ads or allow candidates to put money behind lies. The answer is a combination of clear-cut rules and enforcement mechanisms that will end the Wild West era of digital advertising,” said Bawadden Sayed, a spokesman for the progressive campaign-finance-reform group End Citizens United to Business Insider.
“In an ideal situation, the FEC would be a functioning body that could issue some kind of regulations on what you can and can’t say,” added Amanda Litman, the director of the group Run for Something, referring to the Federal Election Commission, the independent regulatory agency whose purpose is to enforce campaign finance law in the United States.
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