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Twitter bans political advertising: the beginning of the fight-back against fake news?

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that the platform had taken the decision to ban political advertising, stating that the significant power and influence of online advertising “brings significant risks to politics.” 

In a frank thread posted on the platform, Dorsey made the company’s decision and the reasoning behind it explicitly clear:

“A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money. While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions.” – Full thread here.

FIPP spoke to Kerry Kent, Head of Policy for Change.org and previously Director of Legal Affairs for the UK’s Professional Publishers Association (PPA), who said that the move was a positive one, but still more needed to be done in this area: 

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” says Kent. “If they are as described in Mr Dorsey’s tweet, the new rules go even further than UK broadcast regulations, where only limited party political advertising is allowed.”

“That said, Dorsey identifies the real problem further into his statement. Twitter might not be taking money for political advertising any more but is it doing enough to control the constant flood of misinformation and maliciousness that only gets worse during an election period? How do you find a balance between controlling misinformation and ensuring free speech? And more importantly, how do you stop malicious individuals from portraying your well-intentioned efforts as an attack on their freedom of speech? There are no simple solutions. This latest effort is a good start but there is much, much more to do.”

Indeed, the UK finds itself particularly relevant to this debate, having seen its own government announce a new election earlier this week, which will take place in December. Does the banning of political advertising on Twitter favour the incumbent? i.e. will it be more difficult for opposition parties to make in-roads into the Country’s public political discourse, if paid amplification of messaging is taken off the table? 

Mr Dorsey doesn’t think so: “Some might argue our actions today could favour incumbents,” he tells us further down his Twitter thread. “But we have witnessed many social movements reach massive scale without political advertising. I trust this will only grow.”

Time will tell on that front but the timing is undoubtedly interesting for those observing on that side of the Atlantic: Twitter will share its final policy on this matter on 15 November  and begin enforcing it by 22 November, less than a month before the UK Election, which takes place on 12 December. 

Of course, the other market in which this decision will bear major relevance is in Twitter’s home territory of the US, and again timing is of relevance here. It did not escape the observations of many commentators yesterday, that this announcement was made just as Mark Zuckerberg was gearing up to deliver the latest earnings announcement for Facebook, a company which is itself under great scrutiny at present as regards its political ad policy.

One such commentator was one Hilary Clinton, who tweeted: “This is the right thing to do for democracy in America and all over the world. What say you, @Facebook?”

Twitter’s decision is undoubtedly a big one that seems to have instantly shaken-up the media-politics landscape during what was already a volatile period. FIPP recently looked at TikTok, and how it had taken the decision to ban political advertising from the platform, as well as The Young Turk’s Network, which earlier this year announced that it would turn down advertisers that did not match the channel’s values.

A bold stance for Twitter, which appears to be completely at odds with the one that Facebook is currently taking. And within the context of the wider social-media ecosystem, could also end up representing a monumental step forward in the fight against the spread of fake news and ‘alternative facts’.

Jamie Gavin @jaygavin

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