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.

Filed Under: advertisement, benefit, content moderation, content moderation at scale, cost, political ads, revenue, social media, truth
Companies: facebook, twitter


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  • icon
    Gary (profile), 31 Oct 2019 @ 9:49am

    No right answer

    And shortly the xxx group will loudly complain that Twitter is showing a bias and must be stopped.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Oct 2019 @ 10:37am

      Re: No right answer

      To be fair, Twitter does have a bias against porn.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Oct 2019 @ 11:29am

      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”

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Gary (profile), 31 Oct 2019 @ 12:18pm

        Re: Re: No right answer

        I give this about 3 three days before someone goes “unfair”

        I don't think it took three hours actually.

        They are either "Enabling lies" if they let the adds run, or "Censoring viewpoints" if they factcheck or stop them altogether.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    John85851 (profile), 31 Oct 2019 @ 10:42am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Bruce C., 31 Oct 2019 @ 11:11am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Oct 2019 @ 11:18am

      Re: Good riddance

      There is a great barn in Ulster county, ny on one of the most scenic backwoods roads in northeast America. Every fall that barn gets trashed with political election posters during the most picturesque time of the year. It is utterly disgusting filth to see these political posters hung here.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Indeeone, 31 Oct 2019 @ 4:37pm

      Re: Good riddance

      I agree

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Oct 2019 @ 10:51am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Oct 2019 @ 11:21am

      Re:

      Not anti conservative to get politics out of our faces to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Oct 2019 @ 1:12pm

      Re: well then

      The We need more anti conservative actions.
      If the whole of the political system in every form gets booted off then nothing will be lost at this point.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 31 Oct 2019 @ 2:12pm

      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.

      'They're not going to carry any political ads? Clearly this is an anti-conservative move!'

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        ryuugami, 31 Oct 2019 @ 7:41pm

        Re: Re:

        'They're not going to carry any political ads? Clearly this is an anti-conservative move!'

        The sad thing is, that's almost-kinda true. It removes an advantage from the side with more money, which is (usually) conservatives.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Toom1275 (profile), 31 Oct 2019 @ 9:52pm

        Re: Re:

        It's harder for them to keep cheating at the game if twitter flips the table.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 1 Nov 2019 @ 9:49am

        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-zuckerbe rg-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."

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          That One Guy (profile), 1 Nov 2019 @ 12:57pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Because of course they did...

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          bhull242 (profile), 1 Nov 2019 @ 8:41pm

          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.”

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Bruce C, 31 Oct 2019 @ 11:14am

    "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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Matthew Cline (profile), 31 Oct 2019 @ 11:41am

      Re:

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

      Since Twitter isn't receiving money for it, it isn't.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 31 Oct 2019 @ 11:59am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 1 Nov 2019 @ 7:48am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Wyrm (profile), 31 Oct 2019 @ 11:58am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Leigh Beadon (profile), 31 Oct 2019 @ 1:56pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Wyrm (profile), 31 Oct 2019 @ 4:56pm

        Re: Re:

        True. I didn't say people want Facebook to choose which stance to take. :D 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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 31 Oct 2019 @ 12:52pm

    Only 2 ways out of this..

    1. Lock them down to their OWN corner, and let them scream and holler, AND NO ONE GETS BANNED in that corner.. They can be from the moon, and speak Tons of crap...NO BAN..NO KICK.
      They asked for it, they got it(toyota)..

    2. DONT allow any of it..and NO adverts..NO paid for comments, NOTHING..from anyone, anyplace..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Oct 2019 @ 1:35pm

      Re: Only 2 ways out of this..

      So basically you get a literal republican twitter and democrat twitter and Separate the inmates into from greater society?

      I like it....

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Oct 2019 @ 4:03pm

    I can already predict that there will be judgement calls about what is or is not a news organization.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 31 Oct 2019 @ 4:14pm

      Re:

      all ready happening..
      Just put up a big word at the beginning of Such programs..

      OPINION, in big letters..and I wont bitch.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Nov 2019 @ 3:41am

      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?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Oct 2019 @ 11:28pm

    blue's not going to like this, is he?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    WBM Family Festival (profile), 1 Nov 2019 @ 4:36am

    Right Decision

    I see that political ads on Twitter are supposedly going to not be a thing. Facebook Allows Prominent Right-Wing Website to Break the Rules.

    WBM "Women Baby Men" Family Festival at Emporium Mall 2019

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Wild e-Beest, 1 Nov 2019 @ 2:27pm

    "(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.")"

    "Money is speech." "Corporations are people."

    That is what utter nonsense sounds like.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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