Is Twitter’s ban marking the next phase of the techlash?
As Twitter decided to disallow political advertising in social media, the tweet release was met by predominantly positive reactions by the Twitter community. Twitter’s decision might have been influenced by Mark Zuckerberg’s voice and free expression speech in which he made it clear that Facebook, at least from a business perspective, doesn’t need the revenue stream from political advertising.
However, this is not a decision to be celebrated.
Why drawing a line in the sand is a futile effort
The first action would of course be to stop political parties from using programmatic advertising to get their message out. But that doesn’t really cut it, now does it? We would have to ban individual politicians from advertising as well. And, of course, political organisations. That last part is quite tricky, to say the least; some organisations are clearly lobby organisations.
There are also plenty of organisations who are closely tied to political movements while still being autonomous to drive their own agenda. Should they be allowed to advertise? And what about the private companies and interests? Should they be allowed to advertise their business agenda while political organisations aren’t allowed to campaign against them?
Why all messages can be seen as being political
The main issue with banning certain advertisers is clear: All messages are to some degree political by nature. And what happens if an individual or small company classified as “non-political” decides to run a programmatic campaign with a politicised element? This has spelled trouble for one of my clients recently; they’ve focused on offering products that are packaged and shipped in an environmentally friendly manner, but Facebook’s bots won’t approve their ads, simply because the climate issue has risen on the political agenda.
Twitter is fixing a problem by fueling a worse problem
Society shouldn’t have any problems with populists or anti-democrats spending their money on programmatic advertising1. We shouldn’t force populist and anti-democrats into a position where being remarkable is their only option.
I’m sympathetic to Twitter’s main argument that this isn’t about free speech — it’s about paying for reach. Semantics aside, the fact that rich organisations can pay for influence is a deep-rooted democratic problem dating back to the dawn of human civilisation. But it isn’t like social media algorithms today are seemingly favouring substance, credibility, or democratic values. They favour celebrity status above all else2, a psychological distribution effect that tips the scales of organic reach into the hands of a small few.
Fixed problem: Populists and anti-democrats are allowed to pay for reach and get their message out. And rich lobby organisations can bully poor ones.
Worse problem: Populist and anti-democrats are experts at organic reach from inciting divisiveness. And celebrity status will trump substance for reach.
Techlash: Yet another unnecessary reason to fear tech
Programmatic advertising is the future of advertising and to think that this future won’t include any political agendas of any sort is, at best, a naive position. According to conversion theory, disallowing misrepresented minorities to advertise their political messages will only strengthen their cause. We can hate their opinions, but shutting them out will only make them stronger.
What about the risk of having rich organisations outcompete poor ones? The only short-term antidote for this ancient democratic problem is to evolve the organic algorithms to reward substance and credibility over divisiveness and celebrity status. Plus, we don’t need to credit political advertising for having more potentially damaging influence than it actually has.
This is a long-term business mistake on Twitter’s part
Let me be clear: Twitter is a private company and I support their right to do business with whomever they see fit — or don’t. They rule the platform. In a free market economy, this should be their prerogative.
My objection is that I think that Twitter’s making a public relations mistake. Banning political advertising is not the type of progressive development we’d like to see in a democracy. The bottom line here is that Twitter’s decision to ban political advertising is a populistic message in itself: In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Facebook’s senate hearings, it plays to people’s fear of data-mining and psychographic analysis combined with a general distrust of politicians.
So far, social networking companies have been wise to stay clear of invasive message filters, political bans, and general censorship. I would advise Twitter to persevere past the point of peak populism — this moral war won’t last forever.
- After all, advertising is a form of tax that you have to pay for not being remarkable enough to deserve organic reach.
- See for instance Media and Power, Dunbar’s Number, and The Slight Edge.