Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced last week that the company will halt all political advertising on its platform. “A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet,” said Dorsey. “Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people.”
While roundly praised by the tech commentariat, Dorsey’s decision is based on flawed premises and will further debase online political discourse. Though courts define “electioneering communication” as messaging that explicitly supports a candidate for public office within 30 days of an election, Twitter’s definition is more expansive, applying to ads for candidates at any time in an election cycle, as well as to ads that promote a political issue.
Some causes, such as voter-registration drives, will be exempt. Will the policy apply to Black Lives Matter or Greenpeace advertisements? A Planned Parenthood campaign that promotes abortion services takes an explicitly pro-choice position, but the organization has an institutional imperative to expand its customer base. If Twitter chooses to ban such ads, many of those now celebrating its decision as a victory for truth may reconsider. If, as I suspect, Twitter does not choose to ban advertising from an organization such as Planned Parenthood, the Twitter brain trust will put itself in the position of deciding what constitutes political discourse. Given social media’s centrality in American politics (roughly two-thirds of Americans get news on social media), Twitter-approved policies would be artificially bolstered at the expense of free and open debate. Twitter would then become exactly what it ostensibly fears: a large corporation exercising outsize influence on politics.
Even if Twitter enacts its policy neutrally, barring political ads favors incumbents over newcomers and grassroots organizations. Lesser-known politicians and advocacy groups must now turn to television or print advertisements, which are more expensive, or try their luck gaining traction organically. President Trump, whose 66 million followers far outnumber those of any other current politician, will have a perennial messaging advantage over opponents. So will other celebrities with large followings, rendering fame a more potent force in American politics.
Not only does Twitter’s policy increase the premium on celebrity and incumbency, it incentivizes sensationalism. In Trump’s most retweeted post last year, he threatened a nuclear attack against North Korea; naturally, it drew a lot of eyeballs. Without the option to advertise, politicians and advocacy groups are forced into an arms race wherein the most shocking tweets win them followers. This might be why the American Civil Liberties Union has resorted to tweeting bold statements in all caps, repeated as many times as spatial constraints allow (see, e.g., “ABORTION IS HEALTH CARE. ABORTION IS A RIGHT”). For an organization with 100 attorneys on staff, it’s a decidedly reductive messaging tactic. On the other hand, why bother making a nuanced pro-choice argument that will be lost in a sea of similarly boring tweets?
In a New York Times op-ed supporting Twitter’s decision, tech journalist Kara Swisher wrote that “social media platforms have become hostage to all forms of abuse and manipulation, not just via political ads, and they’ve dragged us all with them into the cesspool.” Swisher takes for granted that political advertisements feed into this “cesspool,” but it’s hardly obvious. Before this policy change, Twitter maintained a public list of certified political-candidate and issue advertisers. Users knew which content was sponsored, and who was paying for it. In the case of false or misleading advertisements, watchdogs and fact-checkers could hold the sponsors responsible. The “abuse and manipulation” that Swisher speaks of is largely the result of bots built by foreign actors and unscrupulous news sites that use social media to drive traffic — as well as, let’s face it, well-meaning American citizens unaffiliated with political-action committees. In contrast to the cesspool of anonymous accounts sharing fake news, political advertisements are an oasis of transparency. At a time when shady elements have allegedly hijacked social media, should we really be targeting the Gates Foundation, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the National Parks Action Fund?
Consider the ad that sparked this debate, in which the Trump campaign accused Joe Biden of using American aid to coax the Ukrainian government to close an investigation of his son. First, the insinuation that Joe Biden had abused his authority to pressure Kyiv had spread far and wide before the campaign broadcast the ad. Well-meaning citizens and journalists had shared it, and they will continue to share it regardless of the Trump campaign’s actions. But the transparency of social-media advertising policies allowed Senator Elizabeth Warren to denounce the Trump campaign and push back against the claims. In Dorsey’s brave new world, individuals will still be able to disseminate such content, but opposition politicians will have less ammunition to dispute accusations.
Twitter’s policy is premised on the fallacious assertion that “the reach” of a political message “should be earned not bought” — the implication is that those with large social-media followings are somehow more deserving than grassroots organizations or political campaigns. The money behind political advertisements comes from charitable contributions to campaigns and nonprofits. Corporations and individuals who decide to give away part of their income sacrifice material goods to support their political views. On the other hand, a retweet takes a split second and requires minimal thought or reflection from users, and virality can be engineered by bots and nefarious actors — a problem for which Twitter has not yet devised a solution. Twitter’s policy arbitrarily favors mob assent over organized mobilization.
As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in his dissent in Abrams v. United States, “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” The “marketplace” metaphor is not coincidental. In a competitive market, firms stand on equal footing to vie for market share. Without such competition, monopolies arise and harm consumers. In the marketplace of ideas, incumbent political positions are natural monopolies whose power can be eroded only by the dissemination of competing ideas.
By transitioning from marketplace to megaphone, Twitter will further coarsen America’s political discourse.