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Twitter to Ban All Political Ads

As social media rapidly replaces traditional journalistic forms of disseminating information, regulators have been slow to catch up with the new form of communication, as the appropriate legal boundaries on free speech on social media platforms remain an open question. Recently, Facebook has drawn criticism for allowing demonstrably false political advertisements to run on its platform, and the company’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, defended the decision to do so by citing free speech concerns. In an apparent response to Zuckerberg’s decision, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey announced that all political ads from around the world would be banned on Twitter, neatly avoiding the problem of politicians spreading disinformation through sponsored posts. Though Dorsey didn’t mention Zuckerberg or Facebook by name, it’s pretty clear that the company’s decision was made in the context of its rival’s position of allowing politicians to lie using advertisements, and it effectively functions as a commentary on Facebook’s policy.

Already, politicians have taken advantage of Facebook’s almost-nonexistent restrictions on paid political speech by running advertisements that contain falsehoods. The Trump campaign, for instance, ran an ad on Facebook falsely accusing rival Joe Biden of “[offering] Ukraine $1 billion to fire the prosecutor investigating a company affiliated with his son.” In response, the Biden campaign asked Facebook to remove the ad from its website, citing a lack of evidence supporting that claim, and Facebook declined to do so, reiterating its policy and defending it by arguing that removing political advertisements constitutes censorship. Elizabeth Warren, one of the leading Democrats in the race for the presidential nomination, ran an ad falsely suggesting Mark Zuckerberg endorsed Donald Trump in order to draw attention to Facebook’s political ad policy and point out how easily it can be abused. The Trump campaign has already spent millions of dollars on Facebook ads containing disinformation, including video ads that have been rejected by CNN and MSNBC for containing falsehoods, which nevertheless have been seen by millions of people.

“A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money.” — Jack Dorsey

Recently, Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress with the intent of discussing his crypto-currency service, Libra, but instead found himself being grilled by lawmakers over Facebook’s stance on misinformation. One exchange which grabbed headlines recently involved freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who questioned Zuckerberg about the boundaries of the company’s restrictions on ads, and posed a hypothetical question: under Facebook’s policy, would she be allowed to run ads in Republican districts claiming that her Republican opponents had endorsed the Green New Deal? Zuckerberg replied that he didn’t know, but that she probably would be allowed to do so. Facebook doesn’t run ads for political campaigns through independent fact-checkers except in rare circumstances, so in all likelihood, Ocasio-Cortez would be permitted to run such an ad if she so chose.

Recently, Zuckerberg revealed that political ads make up only 0.5% of the company’s revenue, suggesting that banning all political ads on the site would have little impact on Facebook’s bottom line. Nonetheless, Facebook remains steadfast in its position, even after receiving significant controversy from the media, Congress, and the general public alike. Zuckerberg also recently drew criticism for having lunch with Republican politicians and conservative commentators, a decision that he defended by stressing the importance of getting along with people from different political stripes. In an apparent rebuke of Zuckerberg’s take on political speech, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey opposed the idea that allowing political ads to run indiscriminately is necessary to avoid censorship and ensure free speech, saying “A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money.” This difference in opinion is at the core of the argument about free speech on social media platforms, and may very well one day manifest in the form of regulations about using advertising to spread misinformation on social media platforms, like the ones that already exist for other forms of media.