Twitter's Decision To Ban Political Ads Is A Moderation Choice Itself That Likely Will Backfire In Its Own Way

from the because-content-moderation-is-impossible-to-do-well dept

Last week we wrote about Twitter's decision to ban all political ads, most likely in response to watching all the shit being flung at Facebook for its decision to not fact check political ads. We focused on the fact that the "costs" of content moderation can sometimes be so high as to make any related revenue just not worth it. However, in that post we did mention that no matter what, there would be criticism of this decision and follow-on decisions concerning what is, and what is not, a "political" advertisement.

There have been a bunch of good, thoughtful articles about all of this that seem worth highlighting. First up is a piece from Markena Kelly at the Verge, who pointed out that Facebook has already tried to ban political ads, but just in the state of Washington, in response to local laws. And just as we predicted will happen with Twitter, there have been ongoing disputes over what constitutes a political ad:

The first major test case for the new system came with Seattle’s city council elections, which will be wrapping in November. Marijuana entrepreneur Logan Bowers ran for city council on an urbanist platform, but he ended up fighting an uphill battle on platforms. He says confusion around the ban “created an unfair and an unlevel playing field and in many ways it made the situation worse.” High-profile ads were ultimately removed by Facebook, usually after they were reported in the media — but plenty of others skated through.

“Some people had their ads restricted and other people didn’t,” Bowers says, usually according to who knew how to spot the loopholes in the system. “Not everyone’s a lawyer.”

And, as that article notes, even though Facebook did this to try to comply with local state laws, the state is still going after Facebook. So it didn't even help on that front. Instead, it was just fights over whose ads get through:

In April, The Stranger reported that one Seattle City Council candidate, Heidi Wills, was able to run a handful of ads on Facebook while her opponent, Kate Martin, was blocked from running any. The two candidates got into a spat through the Wills campaign’s own comments section on Facebook with Martin pleading, “Could you stop paying to promote your Facebook posts and just play by the rules like the rest of us? It’s getting annoying.”

Wills replied, “I am following all the rules and you are welcome to stop following my campaign on FB.”

Meanwhile, Will Oremus, writing for OneZero points out that Twitter's ban is likely to mostly harm activists and organizers:

There’s something to be said for a tech platform taking its responsibilities to the democratic process seriously. But banning political ads is not as straightforward, nor as obviously correct, as those cheering Dorsey’s announcement seem to think.

The problem is twofold. First, defining which ads count as “political” gets tricky in a hurry. Second, prioritizing commercial speech over political speech is itself a political stance, and not necessarily one that we should want our online communication platforms to take.

He notes all sorts of potential downstream problems:

Presumably, tech companies will still be able to run ads touting their commitment to user privacy, but watchdog groups will be barred from running ads suggesting that we need better privacy regulations. Big corporations will be able to boast about how they treat workers, but unions won’t be able to push for prevailing wage laws or workplace safety laws.

Meanwhile, Cat Zakrzewski, writing over at the Washington Post, speaks to some experts who also note that figuring out what counts as a political ad is very, very difficult, leading to plenty of gaming the system (as Facebook discovered above):

Laura Edelson, a PhD candidate at New York University studying political ads on social media, tells me she found instances in the 2018 election where ads from multiple sitting senators were not marked as political ads by Twitter.

That report notes the general problems with classifying ads at all. And while it's framed as something that Twitter is bad at, the reality is that anyone is likely to be bad at this, since so much of this relies on subjective calls, and no one's going to agree.

“The technical problem of enforcing this ban is the same one as enforcing their disclosure requirements, and if they make less information transparent, it will be harder for third parties like us to monitor if they are actually enforcing this policy,” she added.

Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor at The University of Utah, said she and other researchers detected instances where foreign governments were running ads on Twitter subject to the Foreign Agents Registration Act — yet those ads were not identified in Twitter’s ad database. She said if Twitter was unable to identify and include ads from a foreign government in its library, it raises questions about the site's ability to ensure that no political ads about domestic issues are run on its platform.

Meanwhile, the chair of the Federal Election Commission, who in theory has some purview over political advertising, has weighed in as well with a pretty smart take about how banning all political ads doesn't really make much sense. Instead, it might make much more sense to limit the "microtargeting" of such ads.

Here’s a move that would allow political ads while deterring disinformation campaigns, restoring transparency and protecting the robust marketplace of ideas: Sell political ads, but stop the practice of microtargeting those ads.

“Microtargeting” is the sales practice of limiting the scope of an ad’s distribution to precise sets of people, such as single men between 25 and 35 who live in apartments and “like” the Washington Nationals. But just because microtargeted ads can be a good way to sell deodorant does not make them a safe way to sell candidates. It is easy to single out susceptible groups and direct political misinformation to them with little accountability, because the public at large never sees the ad.

As she notes, this approach would enhance transparency and accountability (since people could better see what political ads were on the platform), enable the ability for more people to call out and debunk disinformation, and (in theory -- perhaps optimistically) push political advertisers to create messages that apply to a broader group of people, rather than narrowly targeting certain groups and "fueling the divisiveness that pulls us apart."

Of course, to some extent this still relies on Twitter being able to decide what is and what is not a political ad. We've argued right here in the past that social media platforms should consider dumping targeted ads altogether, but people always yell at us that such ads are way too valuable to completely dump. Still, bringing things back around to our first post on Twitter's decision: perhaps if the "costs" of continuing to run such ads is so high, they'll find that it makes more sense to dump them entirely.

Filed Under: content moderation, fact checking, political ads, scale
Companies: twitter


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  1. identicon
    bobob, 6 Nov 2019 @ 11:44am

    Re: The least bad easy solution.

    No matter what you do, some fraction of people will not be satisfied. So, if, for example, what Twitter is doing is problematic for enough people, there is always room for another forum to appeal to those people. If no one does anything, the most likely outcome will be the government stepping in to create the worst of all possible worlds.

    If the question is about what is best for society, then different people will have somewhat different opinions about what that is, but even the best result is that most people will agree that even if they didn't get everything everyone wanted, that overall it fits the ideas about society embedded in the constitution.


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