Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s decision to ban political ads from the platform lit up Twitter with praise Wednesday night.
But this issue isn’t as straightforward as many believe.
To his credit, Dorsey’s announcement is a clear rebuke of Facebook's hands-off approach to election campaign ads, which amounts to giving politicians carte blanche to lie and mislead voters.
Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly tried to characterize Facebook's decision as a defense of free expression. But hiding behind the banner of First-Amendment principles doesn't obscure the fact that Facebook is so overloaded with political content — and under so much pressure from politicians — that it hasn't found the courage to get this right.
On the other hand, Twitter's response takes the problem to the opposite extreme, silencing those seeking honest communications about issues of political import.
Twitter's new dragnet
While the Twitter ban will put an end to some dishonesty on that platform — like the Trump campaign’s attack ad that spread lies about Joe Biden — it also bans civil-society groups from getting their messages out via issue ads.
With its new ban, Twitter doesn't distinguish between political ads, which seek to elect a candidate for public office, and issue ads, which advocate for legislative reform. And that’s its own problem .
Twitter’s global policy chief Vijaya Gadde tweeted to tech writer Will Oremus that the company’s ban will include “ads that refer to an election or a candidate,” and “ads that advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance (such as: climate change, healthcare, immigration, national security, taxes)”.
Former Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos cataloged some of the types of issue ads that now wouldn't make Twitter's cut, including ads offering educational workshops on global warming, protesting police violence and promoting living wages for teachers.
Why should these important causes be snared in Twitter’s new dragnet?
Twitter's ban will also make it difficult for upstart candidates to challenge deep-pocketed incumbents.
Online platforms offer a more affordable means for challengers to get their messages out to voters. In the past, expensive television, radio and print ads were the only option, limiting the field of candidates to those who could pay big media's high cost.
So both Facebook and Twitter are getting this wrong, imposing rules that worsen the problem they claim to be addressing.
There's no silver bullet to rid online political ads of disinformation. The best approach I've seen is the more detailed and nuanced set of recommendations cobbled together by a group of disgruntled and dissenting Facebook employees.
“We strongly object to [Facebook's] policy as it stands," they wrote to their bosses at the company on Monday. “It doesn’t protect voices, but instead allows politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy.”
They demanded that Facebook change company policy, including holding political ads to the same factual standard as other ads on the site, restricting discriminatory targeting of ads, and placing spending caps on individual politicians and their campaigns.
Facebook employees know what’s increasingly obvious to others across the country: Letting politicians lie via online political ads isn’t about free speech at all. It’s about politics and profits.
Blanket bans of political ads can be as dangerous as blanket approvals. Both are easy outs for platforms that are reluctant to do the hard work of being accountable when their services are used to harm and mislead voters.