Much ado has been made about political advertising on sites like Twitter and Facebook since they announced their general policies around the ads, such as Jeff Jarvis’s take Unpopular Decisions and Ben Thompson’s Tech and Liberty. It’s easy to make this about the companies and the applications they offer, and to complain about how they’re ruining everything, but that strikes me as blaming online applications for the behavior of people offline. It also shifts responsibility for some of the problems onto targets of convenience regardless of responsibility.
Part of the problem in looking at this is that it’s hard to separate out my feelings on political ads (namely, that they’re ****ing annoying), from thoughts on political advertising as a practice. The reality is, there isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) any significant difference between political advertising and advertising in general. Granted, just how different you think political advertising is from regular advertising (and thus how subject it should be to special regulation) is really dependent on just how important you think ads are to elections (I think they’re largely targeted at voter motivation more so than actually changing votes).
Personally, I’m a believer in targeted advertising, even when it’s targeted political advertising. I think it makes ad-supported products better, and I think it encourages better behaviors from marketers (before the ability to efficiently target, “best practices” were essentially “spam a lot”). Even though I personally don’t enjoy viewing and encountering political ads, at least they’re more likely to be promoting candidates marginally related to my political preferences or are more likely to focus on issues I care about.
For that reason alone, I’m not a huge fan of Twitter’s decision. I get why they did it, everyone’s up in arms about inaccurate stories being posted and then promoted on social media, and the 2020 election was sure to bring lots of heat over almost every ad being run. Twitter’s decisions to wash their hands of the whole thing probably saved them a lot of wasted time and PR effort, but I’m not sure I agree with Thompson that it’s a strategy credit. Political spending tends to go up, and while Twitter wasn’t making much money on them in the past (or really advertising in general), there was clearly room for that to grow, especially if a campaign could figure out how to get a lot of shares, views, and general buzz from their promoted posts. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a likely candidate for really “cracking” political ads on Twitter, as is Donald Trump.
Jarvis worried that this decision would benefit analog, mass media operations. Odds are campaigns would likely to just take any money they would have spent on Twitter, and just add it to their existing Facebook or Google advertising instead. From a budgeting perspective, it’s all digital advertising, so might was well shift that 1 line item into other, similar channels. That being said, Jarvis did have a real concern about how bans on political advertising hurts upstarts looking to upset the status quo more than incumbents – any change can be better weathered by incumbents with more resources as they’re better able to pay people to stay on top of these things (that’s a universal truth by the way, it doesn’t just apply to political campaigns). That said, it also assumes said incumbents know to care about things like advertising on Facebook and Twitter. If there’s anything we learned from Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress, it’s that you can’t safely make that assumption about the candidates themselves.
Jarvis was right about 1 thing though – the decision to leave up political ads that violated application rules badly enough that they would have been taken down otherwise is a bad call. Ads on Facebook and Twitter are essentially posts that the author has paid to promote into other people’s feeds. They’re public posts, and should be subject to the same rules as regular posts. As easy as it is to view this cynically (these sites are allowing political ads that would otherwise be against the rules because they only care about profits), a better explanation is, as I mentioned earlier, political speech is considered fundamental to the first amendment, so any action removing political ads or punishing an account that runs them is likely to be subject to extra scrutiny, and just like Twitter is hoping to avoid with their ban, Facebook is likely hoping to avoid being made to explain why they banned some political ads but not others in court or to a hostile Congress. The problem is, rules are rules and if Facebook wants to be considered impartial, then it has to enforce them across the board, including with posts other people paid to have promoted.
Part of the issue here is that we keep thinking of Facebook, Twitter (Google keeps getting thrown in there but I’m not sure how well search display ads compare to in-stream ads from the other apps) as publishers the same way The New York Times or CNN is a publisher of news. That’s not a good way of thinking of this. The New York Times and CNN control what is published on their sites, which literally the opposite of how Facebook and Twitter work. In terms of the content being displayed, Facebook and Twitter are more like public access channels, they’re just piping through whatever other people are pushing. For those of you who think they’re more “hands-on” when it comes to ads, think again. Facebook’s ad platform has a full-fledged API, in addition to not interacting with a human when you buy Facebook ads, you can create and pay for a Facebook ad campaign without interacting with the Facebook website.
Demanding Facebook and Twitter fact check the ads people are running on their sites is like demanding TV channels fact check political ads they run. Does anyone really think ESPN should be responsible for fact-checking any political ads people buy on their network? And why stop there? Elections only happen every couple of years (and let’s be honest, people only really care about the presidential elections which are only every 4 years). Why don’t we make TV channels and ad-supported websites verify the claims of all the ads they run?
The last I heard, all this fact-checking was the media’s job. With the uptick in people extolling the importance of the media especially in these times of a president saying they’re largely full of it, you’d think they’d be quicker to defend their turf from pundits and politicians trying to outsource their work to websites with higher traffic and better ad revenues. There are whole organizations dedicated to this. In fact, most major news organizations have whole divisions designed to serve this very function. There’s even an entire Stack Exchange site that does this sort of thing. So why is it Facebook’s and Twitter’s job to police honesty on their sites? It’s not reasonable and it’s not consistent with how we treat other media channels that display ads.
Thompson linked an interview with former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos where he said there should be a floor on targeting political ads. The logic there was that politicians shouldn’t be allowed to tell different lies to different groups at the same time. The issue with this line of thinking isn’t that only reason politicians couldn’t do this in the past was because they had to physically travel to the different groups to tell the different lies, not to mention the different groups usually had different interests so the different lies were unrelated. All Facebook and Twitter do was remove the travel time restrictions. The underlying issue is the telling different lies to different groups, not the increased productivity due to technological innovation.
Politicians lie in ads. They do it all the time. It’s so common that media outlets created different whole fact-checking operations to correct the lies in political ads. The fact that this practice carried over to online ads should have shocked nobody. So why are we panicking about all this now? Maybe because the low friction behind sharing makes it easy to track propagation, but we have years of TV and print ads to develop tools to track exposure of ads. You can argue that those estimates aren’t precise, whereas share counts are more exact, but given the poor relationship between reading articles and sharing them, I’m not sure that argument holds much water.
The truth is the 2016 presidential election shocked a lot of people, and since then there’s been a big push to try to figure out what happened. The base assumption seems to be that there was some “new input” in 2016 that caused basically every public poll and the general consensus to be so widely off on how it would play out. So everyone started looking at what the Trump campaign did differently than normal, and settled on its use of Facebook and Twitter. I think the real cause at play here was that the ability for a Trump to do what he did had actually been present for a while, he was just the first person to actually ride it to success. If you don’t believe me, look at how Ron Paul in the 2008 and 2012 Republican primaries, Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary, and Andrew Yang in the 2020 primary managed to stay in the race long after any conventional pundit would have written them off. Every single instance was driven predominantly using online applications like Facebook and Twitter to drive support that before 2016 were largely discounted and downplayed.
Somehow, we’ve settled on this narrative that large tech companies are the root of all of society’s problems, and that reason behind it is that they sell targeted ads, some of which are political in nature. The reality is that nothing about the ads are particularly new, including their existence. At most, what’s changed is the efficiency with which they’re deployed. All this really did was expose our collective ignorance and general lack of critical thinking, along with the fervor with which we tend to cling to confirmation bias. In the end, the idea that “fake news on social applications” is throwing elections and ruining the country is overstated, at best. I said it before, and I’m saying it again, political advertising, in any medium, isn’t the problem. It’s time we stopped trying to blame the fact other people vote differently from us on Facebook and Twitter.