'Increased dark social sharing': What Twitter's ban on political advertising tells us

Twitter's ban on political advertising plays to its strengths, but what does it say about Facebook's position and the and the future of political advertising on social media platforms?

Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey hit the headlines this week with his thread on the platform, announcing the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. 

According to Dorsey, political messages should be earned, rather than bought, and there is a point of principle at stake.

Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.

The move is significant, coming a month before the UK General Election and a year before the US 2020 presidential elections, and only a few weeks after Mark Zuckerberg ruled out a Facebook ban on political advertising.

Despite pressure from politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, activists such as Adriel Hampton in San Francisco and even Facebook’s own employees, Zuckerberg maintains that allowing political ads is better for free speech and democracy - apparently, even at the cost of misinformation. 

So what does this tell us about Twitter and Facebook, and the likely future of political advertising generally?

Twitter has clearly played to its strengths here. It’s somewhere where organic content can still thrive, where big name politicians attract massive interest without a need for paid investment.

The elephant in the room is Donald Trump and his supporters – providing they stay within Twitter’s guidelines, there isn’t much the platform can do to stop them from highly politicised discourse and interaction.

But Twitter might start to find it difficult to police paid for messages that aren’t clearly political. Parties and politicians could channel their energies on the platform into running advertising through third parties or individuals: the platform could find itself having to moderate huge amounts of content.

For Facebook, a political advertising ban would hurt its bottom line significantly. It has to all intents and purposes become a paid-for platform. While Zuckerberg claims he would rather allow for free expression than impose a ban, his employees have called for a more exacting application of advertising standards on political ads. 

The larger issue points to an uncomfortable truth many mainstream news organisations have highlighted in the past: to what extent do social media platforms encroach on journalistic territory, with all the regulatory issues and scrutiny this entails? 

Twitter and Facebook have taken opposing stands on political advertising in the absence of clear and present regulation, but for both, doing so puts them in a volatile political context. There are significant risks to their ability to operate on their own terms, using self-regulation, if their positions come under a ruling party’s political pressure and eventual regulation.

The big issue remains: fake news. It is still rife across social media platforms. Facebook is actually further down the line when it comes to policing fake news, and there’s more that Twitter could do. 

Misinformation is organically shareable by design, so even without paid spend it will continue to spread. Platforms will need to invest in more and better moderation tools if they are serious about tackling this.

And what does Twitter’s ban mean for the future of political advertising? I can foresee political ad spend moving even more into Facebook’s suite of services; and WhatsApp is due to start advertising, according to reports, in 2020.

Targeted political advertising, and short and snappy political ads that disappear, for example in Instagram Stories, can be expected to become more prominent.

Increased dark social sharing of paid-for political messages appearing on Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp in 2020 is my presumption of what happens next.

Andre van Loon is a senior research and insight director at We Are Social

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