Like many Americans, Twitter has officially thrown its hands up and checked out of politics.
Twitter is banning all political ads starting November 22nd, according to tweets by the company’s CEO Jack Dorsey on Wednesday.
The company’s decision comes after weeks of Facebook stumbling over the same issue. Earlier this month, Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign penned letters to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube asking that they refuse to run false or misleading political ads. Biden’s campaign had become the target of a series of ads placed by President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign that made baseless claims regarding the Biden family’s relationship with the Ukrainian government.
It’s shocking. Don’t let anyone tell you different. On its face, it would seem to be a bad business decision for a platform and leadership team that was not able to turn a profit until last year. If we were just talking about campaign ads, it may not hurt as much as one might think.
Take Facebook for example: The Trump and Clinton campaigns only spent a combined $81 million on 2016 ads, a small fraction of Facebook’s nearly $30 billion in revenue that year. In 2018, $284 million was spent in total on midterm election ads versus Facebook’s nearly $60 billion revenue in 2018, says Tech For Campaigns.
But here’s what they don’t tell you:
The real money to be made is in issue influence, advocacy and public lobbying on behalf of corporate/political interests. The scope of Jack’s tweets are mesmerizingly sweeping and broad: it’s not just candidates and campaigns that will be banned in late November; it’s causes and 501c4’s and issue-oriented 501c3’s and political PACs GLOBALLY. There is so much economic activity in those shadow realms, they might account for a GDP point by themselves. Entire city blocks in Washington DC are dedicated to such activities. Now, they’re all banned from advertising:
So what does a Twitter Ban on Political Ads mean for candidates and causes? What does it mean for social platforms themselves?
For candidates and causes, it doesn’t mean much, for the time being. When NATIV3 works with a political client with an end goal of winning an election or influencing a decision, Twitter is not an optimal platform to spend money on. More often than not we find the organic potential of Twitter – that is to say, the best thing it can do for you – is to grab media attention and create intrigue. Even folks who are absolute rockstars at Twitter utilize organic lift to create small-dollar donors, NOT advertising.
We’ve found far more success on Facebook and Instagram’s advertising platform to generate the lifeblood of a campaign: lists, supporters, and small-dollar donors.
This is the more long-term concern: what kind of pressure does this put on Facebook? While I disagree with their synopsis, TechCrunch wrote an article calling for platforms to stop selling “misinformation”:
Not only are candidates dishonest, but voters aren’t educated, and the media isn’t objective. And now, hyperlinks turn lies into donations and donations into louder lies. The checks don’t balance. What we face is a self-reinforcing disinformation dystopia. That’s why if Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube don’t want to be the arbiters of truth in campaign ads, they should stop selling them. If they can’t be distributed safely, they shouldn’t be distributed at all.
That is, in essence, why Jack pulled the plug.
Mark Zuckerberg has been getting grilled on Capitol Hill for similar reasons. How long can social platforms be babysitters of sponsored information?
If Jack’s decision emboldens or shames top brass at Facebook to make a similar decision, it would have devastating repercussions on campaigns and causes looking to make a digital impact. Most good political digital marketers make their hay on Facebook’s ad platform. In essence, if Jack’s decision is isolated with Twitter, then it’s totally fine and shouldn’t have a huge impact. If the sentiment spills over to Facebook (or even Google’s ad platform), we’re looking at Armageddon (or close to it) for political vendors and principals.
For social platforms – Jack threw a potential revenue opportunity to the wind because of the liability in spreading what he calls “disinformation with dollars behind it.” He’s right when he talks about advancement in machine learning outpacing his platform’s innovation to censor fake content. It’s happening everywhere to every platform imaginable. Jack checked his company out of it unequivocally. It’s easy to say “Oh yeah, candidates make up for a small percentage of our ad revenue,” but politically-controversial issues and causes are much larger cargo to throw overboard. And, if you judge by Jack’s tweets, he’s willing to get rid of all of it. If Zuckerberg follows in any form or fashion, upstart campaigns and causes are going to have to get creative with advertising dollars and platform placement
Which leaves us with a final question: How does a platform determine what is political? Are groups like Planned Parenthood political? The NRA? Taylor Swift? She did lobby for Democrat candidates in 2018. What about Kanye West? Is Jesus is King a political piece of content? Who decides? The nature of a platform censoring its content creates the ultimate slippery slope. Not only will Twitter have to tread lightly here, but so will every platform that follows.