clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Twitter got rid of political ads. Will it help or hurt social media’s influence on politics?

Kara Swisher joins the conversation on this episode of Reset.

In this photo illustration, a Twitter logo is displayed on a smartphone.
Will Twitter’s decision to ban all political ads have any impact on curbing the spread of misinformation in the 2020 election?
Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made a big announcement on October 30 that by the end of November 2019, Twitter will ban political ads on the platform. That means users won’t see ads from campaigns or from certain political issues in their feeds.

“The move is supposed to stop politicians from straight-up lying in their social media ads. Meaning, if you can’t fix the problem, get rid of it,” host Arielle Duhaime-Ross says on this episode of Reset.

Some people consider Dorsey’s move to be a direct response to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who has so far very publicly refused to ban or even restrict political ads on his own platform.

One thing to remember is that political ads aren’t a big source of revenue for Twitter. According to Twitter CFO Ned Segal, the company brought in under $3 million on political ads in the 2018 midterm elections. But Twitter made about $700 million in ads, overall, in a single quarter in 2019.

So does Twitter’s “big” announcement matter? And will this prevent the microblogging platform preferred by Donald Trump from having a large impact in the 2020 election?

“They’ve thrown their hands up and said, we don’t can’t do this. And so let’s just not. So they’re going to focus on the issues of commonality. Like we all want safety for our children. And those who don’t, they don’t get the voice on this platform. That’s fine,” Recode editor-at-large Kara Swisher explains.

Swisher lays out why she thinks Twitter itself “has been brought down by Donald Trump’s tweets rather significantly.”

Later in the episode, Vox senior correspondent Zack Beauchamp says that the focus on ads is misplaced because the real problem — a calculated spread of disinformation like we saw on Russia’s part during the 2016 election — is how social media platforms like Facebook are structured. Still, Beauchamp thinks this is at least a start to social media platforms taking responsibility for their role in spreading misinformation.

“I like the thinking behind Twitter’s position more than I like Facebook’s position, in part because it displays a degree of ownership over the issue of the way their platforms are used in politics, [one] that Facebook is very reticent to do...”

Listen to their entire discussion here. We’ve also shared a lightly edited transcript of ​Swisher’s conversation with Duhaime-Ross below.

You can subscribe to Reset on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Twitter’s decision felt like an easy thing to do on a relatively small platform that I don’t think of as a place where people serve me a ton of political ads.

But then I turned to Twitter and saw a lot of praise for Jack Dorsey’s decision. People seemed to think that the Twitter ad ban was a significant move that would have a real impact. I wasn’t convinced, but I wanted to know more: So I asked Recode editor-at-large Kara Swisher to talk to me about it,

Kara Swisher

For a long time, tech has been really pilloried for the impact it’s had on democracy ... especially Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. And so for someone to ban political advertising — which has been this week in the news with Mark Zuckerberg saying he would allow politicians to lie — is a big deal.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

My gut reaction was that this is kind of meaningless given how Twitter as a platform operates. Twitter political ads don’t actually seem like they’re that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. What matters are tweets and those are free. The other thing that I’m concerned about is the unintended consequences.

If people can’t pay to place ads in your feed anymore, then that means that what gets retweeted and what is actually valuable on Twitter is probably tweets that are increasingly outrageous.

So I’m wondering, how will politicians get the word out there on Twitter now?

Kara Swisher

It’s already changed. Let’s stop pretending. Donald Trump has changed the equation. AOC, Ted Cruz. Lindsey Graham even.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Do you think this could make this worse?

Kara Swisher

No, I know it’s bad. I think Twitter has been brought down by Donald Trump’s tweets rather significantly and it’s not going back. And this is how people communicate. This is how the president governs. This is how it’s used. And so they’ve got to figure that out.

Jack Dorsey did talk about that when he said that political advertising and paid speech is very different than free speech in that it can be targeted. It can affect millions of people. It can micro-target. They used machine learning optimization. It’s a very different thing.

Even though [Twitter is] not the biggest player in this, it sets a precedent.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

It seems like you’re focusing on the symbolism of it.

Kara Swisher

It’s more than symbolic.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

[But is it] actually going to have a real impact?

Kara Swisher

Well, what if it causes Facebook to do it?

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Will it?

Kara Swisher

Now it’s “Game on,” Facebook. What are you going to do about paid political advertising — and not just paid political advertising, but not vetting any of it, allowing politicians to lie? Almost encouraging them to lie?

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

What do you think of Twitter political ads? Do you actually feel like they have an impact?

Kara Swisher

See, that’s not the point. The point is that the larger idea of the discussion has now shifted to why is Facebook letting politicians lie? And it’s been upped by a quantum level, by this move by Jack Dorsey.

Twitter is where all the media, all sides, all the politicians gather. And so this is why it’s a big deal.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

I think I get the argument about not letting politicians lie. [But] for me, there’s also an additional issue here, which is the issues ban.

The Twitter ban also bans issue [ads]. So now Planned Parenthood can’t advertise. Climate change advocacy groups can’t advertise. Gun rights groups can’t advertise anymore. And also people who want to ban guns.

And to me, this opens up a minefield for Twitter because now they’re going to have to decide what is an issue. And that basically means anything that divides Americans.

Kara Swisher

Yes, I think that’s what they’re saying. They’ve thrown their hands up and said, we can’t do this so let’s just not. They’re going to focus on the issues of commonality. Like, we all want safety for our children and those who don’t, they don’t get the voice on this platform. That’s fine.

It’s a private business. People keep forgetting Twitter is not the public square. They are not owned by the public. It’s a private company that’s there to make money.

This is causing so much pain compared to the amount of things they should be focusing on, which is building a commercial advertising business. There are all kinds of problems around hate speech [and] bullying that they really need to be focused on to make it a better experience, including improving the product itself.

This is a giant headache that they are ill-equipped to deal with. They do not have the staff to do it. And they don’t have to sell those ads.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

So given what you know about Zuckerberg, do you think he will actually care about this?

Kara Swisher

Yes, he does. He gave a whole speech on it. He was in front of Congress getting owned by Katie Porter and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He doesn’t want to be dealing with this. He’s busy making a fortune.

This is not good for Facebook. He also gave a “free speech” speech at Georgetown and he laid out a set of concepts that were very lightweight.

The whole thing is being handled so badly by Facebook, I’m kind of fascinated to watch it.

But [Zuckerberg] has been known to change his mind. And it’d be really interesting to see —especially given that most people feel that Facebook did a lot of damage in the 2016 presidential election — if they really want to go full bore, letting politicians lie into the next election, given how much the Trump administration uses Facebook.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Project this six months into the future: What does this mean for social media? How is Twitter dealing with this issues problem? Does Facebook now have a ban on political ads? Where are we going to be?

Kara Swisher

I think by Thanksgiving, Facebook will have a ban on political ads. They will come around to realizing that they need to focus on things other than this.

And I think that they go on about being the free speech wing of the free speech party. But the fact of the matter is, they make choices every single day of restricting people’s speech because they don’t like it on their platform. They do it all the time. And for them to hypocritically say that they don’t is problematic.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Do you think that this is a permanent move for Twitter? Because from reading just the Jack Dorsey tweets, it sounded like they were taking a step back in order to address this issue. Are we going to see political ads on the platform again?

Kara Swisher

I suspect yes. I think none of these companies have done any thought before they started launching. Silicon Valley has foisted their experimental efforts on the public for far too long. And so Facebook, or Twitter or whoever, released beta versions of how they’re going to deal with hate, but never really dealt with it. And then later, fixing it after [the fact] becomes ... so big and so impossible.

You can’t say just because it’s small, it doesn’t matter. It matters that someone says, you know what, this sucks. And there’s a symbolic part of it that may have implications elsewhere.

There is an idea that Silicon Valley is finally saying we have responsibilities that we need to start focusing on. It’s just the first step in a lot of these companies recognizing that they need to have guardrails. It’s a first step with politicians saying we need to put in guardrails.

And citizens saying: Just a minute, these are all great things, but when do we make this trade of convenience for the good? And to me, that’s a good thing.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

I feel like Twitter is a little bit small, and I’m not sure that it’s that much pressure on Facebook. But maybe you’re right.

Kara Swisher

Small mouse changes things. Don’t you know that?

The “politicians lie” thing has a lot of resonance for citizens because when those lies sit next to truth, it’s not the truth that wins. It’s lies that win always, always, always.

When you allow [the lies] to sit there and Mark Zuckerberg is like, if people see that they’re lying, then they’ll know what their politicians are doing. And that’s the media’s job to point that out. That’s a big job for a business under siege because of Facebook and Google.

[Media] business models were destroyed by them. So you want us to pick up your mess and make sure you know it’s a hard job? And so should we let politicians be paid to lie?

That’s really where I think the question is: Will they maybe change that part of it [and] allow vetting these ads? That would be another step in the right direction.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

For people like Kara, Twitter’s decision is a big deal because it means Twitter is finally reckoning with its role in democracy, and that might push Facebook to do the same.

I see Kara’s point. But I’m still left wondering: Why is lying in political ads on social media, rather than on TV or in newspapers, the thing we’re all focusing on right now?

To find out, listen to the full episode and subscribe to Reset on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.