Twitter’s announcement that it will ban all political advertising has prompted a wave of calls for Facebook to do the same. But Twitter’s political advertising operation had just 21 advertisers across the entirety of the EU during the parliamentary elections this year, according to the site’s transparency report.
The Twitter co-founder and chief executive, Jack Dorsey, has turned a weakness into a strength, cutting off a minuscule revenue stream in order to heap pressure on his main competitor. In the hours since Twitter’s announcement, support has come from voices as diverse as the US-based campaign group Muslim Advocates, the Open Knowledge Foundation thinktank and the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.
Madihha Ahussain, of Muslim Advocates, commended Dorsey for “acknowledging the serious problem of political misinformation and for not-so-subtly rebuking Facebook’s reckless political ad policy”.
The chief executive of the Open Knowledge Foundation, Catherine Stihler, said Twitter’s decision was “very welcome” and called on Facebook to act on “growing demands for greater transparency”. She said: “It is imperative that we do not allow disinformation to blight this year’s UK general election, forthcoming elections across Europe, and next year’s US presidential election.”
Sorkin, writing in the New York Times, criticised Mark Zuckerberg for enabling the “crazy lies pumped into the water supply that corrupt the most important decisions we make together”. The screenwriter behind The Social Network, a film about Facebook’s early years, joined in a chorus of criticism of the site’s policy of explicitly allowing misinformation in political adverts.
“Right now, on your website, is an ad claiming that Joe Biden gave the Ukrainian attorney general a billion dollars not to investigate his son. Every square inch of that is a lie and it’s under your logo. That’s not defending free speech, Mark, that’s assaulting truth,” he wrote.
“You and I want speech protections to make sure no one gets imprisoned or killed for saying or writing something unpopular, not to ensure that lies have unfettered access to the American electorate.”
Zuckerberg highlighted that, as with Twitter, political adverts were not a major revenue stream at Facebook, representing “less than 0.5% of our revenue next year”. In a lengthy and emotional defence of the company’s “principles”, he denied allegations that the moves were “cynical political calculation, that we’re just trying to appease conservatives – that’s wrong too. Frankly, if our goal were to make either side happy, we’re not doing a very good job, because we’re making everyone frustrated with us.”
Dorsey’s move also brought some criticism. Donald Trump’s digital campaign chief, Brad Parscale, called the move “yet another attempt by the left to silence Trump and conservatives”, saying in a statement that it was “a very dumb decision” made because “Twitter knows President Trump has the most sophisticated online programme ever known”.
The company also faced criticism on the details after it confirmed that the ban would apply not just to adverts for political candidates but also to ones that touch on issues of “national importance”, including climate change, healthcare and immigration.
But the small scale of political advertising on Twitter should help the company avoid the bulk of the criticism. Across the whole of the EU, just 21 advertisers, none from the UK, ran political adverts during the regulated period of the EU parliamentary elections, according to information on Twitter’s site. Facebook, by contrast, has taken more than £300,000 in the last week from just the top 10 British political advertisers.
Facebook might struggle to hold its stance for long. YouGov research conducted on behalf of the global advertising and marketing agency Grey London found that 81% of people thought political advertising should be regulated on social media during elections and referendums. There are no specific rules in the UK, only general spending limits that apply across all non-broadcast advertising.