Sometimes The Cost Of Revenue Is Too High: Twitter Bans Political Ads As Facebook Deals With Ongoing Shitshow

from the the-fun-of-content-moderation dept

There’s been a lot of talk in the last few weeks about political ads online, kicked off by Facebook “clarifying” that its fact checking rules for regular advertisements don’t apply to political ads, after President Trump’s campaign ran some ads that were laughably inaccurate. That kicked off a series of political stunts, including Elizabeth Warren taking out her own misleading ads to call out Facebook (though, as we noted, that whole stunt seemed particularly silly since she had previously complained that Facebook shouldn’t be blocking political ads — when they were her own). The debate rages on with everyone insisting that their viewpoint is correct, and with few acknowledging that there is no good answer.

If you fact check political ads, you will undoubtedly be accused of bias against those whose ads get blocked. And a big part of the problem is not about whether or not something is “factual” but about nitpicking around the semantics of what is and what is not a fact, or in how it’s presented. This is why most fact checking operations constantly get called out, since so much is a judgment call. And, because of that, there is a reasonable position that Facebook has staked out that when it comes to politics, it doesn’t want to be in the business of judging the veracity of one side or another. Of course, that response is wholly unsatisfying and is easy to spin as “letting politicians lie.”

And, unsurprisingly, we’re now seeing stunts like the one attempted by political activist Adriel Hampton, who has registered to run for governor of California solely to be exempted from having to post truthful ads (or, more realistically, solely to make a protest-point about what he thinks about Facebook’s political ads policy). Facebook has already said that they won’t allow him to run false political ads on its platform, and Hamptom says he’s “considering legal action.” Any such legal action would flop, thanks to CDA 230. Once again, content moderation at scale runs into lots of challenges and obstacles, no matter what you do — and it’s particularly fraught in the political advertising context.

Facebook execs have tried to make this point recently, though it’s doubtful that anyone is truly convinced:

Anyone who thinks Facebook should decide which claims by politicians are acceptable might ask themselves this question: Why do you want us to have so much power?

In our view, the only thing worse than Facebook not making these calls is for Facebook to make these calls.

Part of the issue is that everyone is conflating a few different issues — including the powerful position these companies have within the advertising ecosystem, the ability of politicians to target ads, the success of those advertising campaigns, and the nature of truth itself. Each of those are challenging issues, and not all solutions work the same for each — yet they all get lumped together. And, inevitably, that means a dissatisfying result for all.

But there’s another option: which is not to play at all.

Amusingly, the very next paragraph in Facebook’s attempted defense of its policy is to try to tie itself to other scrutinized platforms:

Our approach is consistent with companies like YouTube and Twitter. And broadcasters are required by federal law not to censor candidate ads.

To which Twitter has replied: “Nuh uh!” and officially announced it won’t allow any political ads on its platform at all:

Twitter is planning to ban political ads from its service globally, the company announced Wednesday via a series of tweets from its CEO Jack Dorsey. The ban will go into effect Nov. 22.

Dorsey said the ban will cover ads about specific candidates and issues ? the broadest possible ban. Some ads will be allowed to remain, including those encouraging people to vote. According to a Twitter spokesperson, news organizations are currently exempt from its rules on political advertising, and the company will release full details on exemptions next month.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in practice — and I can already predict that there will be judgment calls about what is and what is not a political ad in the coming weeks and months, and plenty of criticism will be leveled when groups think the company decides incorrectly (one way or the other). Again, this remains something of a no win situation in which lots of people will be unhappy.

However, this brought to mind a larger point that I thought was worth making. One of the trite arguments that people keep making about these companies and the decisions they make is that they’re entirely about what will increase revenue — and that these companies want to accept whatever ads they can to maximize that revenue at every opportunity. But, of course, revenue is only one side of the equation. How much that revenue “costs” is a big deal as well. And, it seems pretty clear that Twitter (while watching what Facebook was going through) decided that the headache of dealing with this question was likely way too big of a “cost,” even if it wasn’t directly a monetary cost.

For what it’s worth, Mark Zuckerberg himself has argued that the revenue from political ads is negligible in the grand scheme of things, so the company could ban them without a significant hit. It has just chosen not to, for whatever reasons (Facebook tries to suggest lofty ideals about “giving people a voice” which seems like utter nonsense, because paid advertising has nothing to do with “giving people a voice.”)

I raise all of this to go back to my recent paper on “Protocols, Not Platforms.” One of the most common criticisms I’ve heard of that paper is that none of the big social media companies would ever adopt such a system, because it would likely mean giving up control and some amount of revenue (advertising or otherwise). In the paper I try to argue that this is not necessarily true. For one, there are some possible new business models that could replace advertising, but more importantly the costs of continuing to deal with complaints about content moderation are likely to continue to grow at an increasing rate — and some of those platforms may decide that it’s just not worth it any more. And then they may decide that they need to pick another path — and moving to a protocols-based solution, in which they shift the power away from their own centralized control, and out to the ends of the network, could become much more appealing.

And that’s why I find Twitter’s decision here quite interesting. It’s not going nearly as far as I hope these companies will go eventually — but it does show that the headaches created by setting themselves up as arbiters (or not) of truth might be so painful and costly that companies will look for ways to get out of the business altogether. That’s actually an encouraging sign. It’s a hell of a lot better than a company insisting that it can somehow magically deal with this mess and choose which political ads are okay and which are not without pissing everyone off.

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Companies: facebook, twitter

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Comments on “Sometimes The Cost Of Revenue Is Too High: Twitter Bans Political Ads As Facebook Deals With Ongoing Shitshow”

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32 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: No right answer

Do you participate in activism unions run for office yadDa politics and bring attention to your causes By way of internet ads?

It’s a political ad

Since those types of people are of ignoble origins that run around the constitution “which when you think about it is not that hard to understand if you have good intentions it’s basically says don’t be a dick and be a free man” more often then a nascar race. I give this about 3 three days before someone goes “unfair”

John85851 (profile) says:

Good riddance

I for one, will be glad to see political ads gone for good.
The breaking point for me was the past two election cycles where Republican state senators vowed to end Obamacare. They’re state senators and they have no power to end Obamacare, which is a federal law! But enough enough senators thought the ads were effective so they kept running them.
Of course, they completely forgot that they couldn’t uphold this promise if they got elected, but hey, everyone knows campaign promises aren’t kept.

Plus the fact that most political ads are extremely negative and only serve to tell people to vote against the opponent, not for the candidate.

Bruce C. says:

Re: Good riddance

To be fair, the state could refuse to accept the medicaid funding that goes with Obamacare, which IS in the power of the state legislature.

but of course, when push comes to shove, it’s too hard to say no to federal funding. There may have been a couple of states that followed through and rejected the extra medicaid money, but I can’t recall any.

Anonymous Coward says:

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in practice — and I can already predict that there will be judgment calls about what is and what is not a political ad in the coming weeks and months, and plenty of criticism will be leveled when groups think the company decides incorrectly (one way or the other). Again, this remains something of a no win situation in which lots of people will be unhappy.

The Trump campaign has already claimed this action is anti-conservative.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The messed up thing is that I honestly can not tell if that’s supposed to be a joke or not, as I could completely see that happening.

It’s not a joke.

https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/twitter-ceo-announces-no-more-political-ads-zuckerberg-biden-trump-camps-respond/ar-AAJBK6B?ocid=spartandhp

Trump campaign manager, Brad Parscale, slammed Twitter’s decision, saying in a statement, "Twitter just walked away from hundreds of millions of dollars of potential revenue, a very dumb decision for their stockholders. Will Twitter also be stopping ads from biased liberal media outlets who will now run unchecked as they buy obvious political content meant to attack Republicans? This is yet another attempt to silence conservatives, since Twitter knows President Trump has the most sophisticated online program ever known."

bhull242 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I’d just like to comment on two gems from that.

Will Twitter also be stopping ads from biased liberal media outlets who will now run unchecked as they buy obvious political content meant to attack Republicans?

Uh, no, they won’t because they’re only not buying ads from politicians. Media outlets aren’t politicians. They will be fact-checking those ads, though, so they won’t be unchecked. And they will treat ads from, say, Fox News or other biased conservative media outlets exactly the same as ads from biased liberal media outlets (and also from unbiased media outlets).

Twitter knows President Trump has the most sophisticated online program ever known.

HAHhahahahahahahahahahahaha! ???? Oh, Trump’s online presence is definitely significant, but I wouldn’t describe anything of his as “sophisticated.”

Bruce C says:

"and I can already predict that there will be judgment calls about what is and what is not a political ad in the coming weeks and months, and plenty of criticism will be leveled when groups think the company decides incorrectly (one way or the other)."

…So, just how much controversy will Twitter actually be able to avoid by this scheme? Depends on how much time is spent trying to game the system to get political messages through the filters.

One easy setup: is it a political ad when @RealDonaldTrump tweets a link to an RNC propaganda page?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: good faith has limits when people just want your house.

At this point I don’t see why keeping his kind On that platform is worth it. My god I never thought I would say that but Jesus what is anybody getting out of hosting politicians these days and letting them have accounts? All they do is spread things you get caught up in and and really i don’t like anyone from either side. But I still go to bat because I know it could be me one day. But these ##### aren’t even Giving BACK! Who wants this in your house? Even Ben franklin would not host people who only are there because of the kindness of others they themselves don’t have! I don’t see why twitter and Facebook keep giving all these politicians thread they will eventually hang them with no matter what the option is.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The story doesn’t say anything about this being limited to paid political advertisements, or indeed even just to political advertisements. Advertisements "about specific issues" are said to be banned also. Except, apparently, the issue of whether people should vote, for which Twitter have already chosen a side.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Wyrm (profile) says:

Anyone who thinks Facebook should decide which claims by politicians are acceptable might ask themselves this question: Why do you want us to have so much power?

Amusing to see how they misrepresent the position of their critics.
The main critic I’ve heard is not about "making them judge the truth of ads", it’s about making them act consistently.

  • Either they fact-check all ads. Why put an exception specifically on one of the most impactful type of ad ever?
  • Or don’t fact-check at all, let people make their own judgement.

And then, it went one step further as Facebook started judging who is "a politician" or not.
Let’s summarize Adriel Hampton’s action for a minute to show how FB reacted:

  • He submitted an obviously lying "political ad" to Facebook. Facebook pretended until then that they didn’t fact-check political ads at all. They fact-checked and rejected this one… pretending that what they excluded was "politicians’ ads", not "political ads".
  • Adriel then registered to run for governor, making him an official politician. He then resubmitted his ad, and it was rejected again… under the pretense that they don’t recognize a politician that is not running in an ongoing election or something like this. Now, this is getting subjective.
  • The FB team also mentioned that they wouldn’t allow an ad that was previously debunked… which is also a new twist.

It’s worse than "we let politician lie", it’s "we let some politician lie"… and they decide who is or isn’t allowed to lie.
So, the problem is not so much "we don’t fact-check political ads", but a much more vague "we don’t check the political ads we want to let through." They are legally allowed to do that, but they should understand that they open themselves to critic with such a flawed and subjective policy as they knowingly let some lies through and not others.

They also tried the debunked "tv channels are forced to let political ads through", which is really a "tv channels are not required to validate political ads".

Their defense crumbles all the way, so they should either own their policy or change it.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re:

As far as I know, there aren’t many critics offering up the "be consistent, either-or" position you outline. There are some critics saying "fact-check everything, be a publisher" and other critics saying "fact-check nothing, be a platform" – and some facetiously saying "choose" as a way of actually demanding the one they prefer – but few if any critics legitimately saying they’d be fine with either so just choose one.

Wyrm (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

True. I didn’t say people want Facebook to choose which stance to take. 😀 I agree that most critical want consistency… their way, not FB’s.

Also, I tend to disagree with extreme positions, though I do find FB’s stance to be even worse. It’s inconsistent, which is the worse kind of moderation, and their public response to critics is a big fat lie which doesn’t help either.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Yeah, and more

Dorsey said the ban will cover ads about specific candidates and issues — the broadest possible ban. Some ads will be allowed to remain, including those encouraging people to vote. According to a Twitter spokesperson, news organizations are currently exempt from its rules on political advertising, and the company will release full details on exemptions next month.

This is impossible. Ads about specific candidates is not too hard (ad about a person who has registered as a candidate for an elected position during the run up to the election). But, even that is tricky. All elections at all levels of all governments globally. Really?

As for "specific issues"; you are really going to write a list of all of the "specific issues"? Good luck with that. Because next is "why is issue X not on your ban list". Nightmare.

And then you get to defining "news organisation" as AC mentions above. And then you’ve created a situation where news organisations are the only ones allowed to run political ads. I mean the tie between government and news organisations is close enough already; you want to make it tighter?

The policy looks great at first view, but the deeper you look the more impossible it is.

What is a "political ad" anyway?

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