‘Block’ and ‘mute’ both bet­ter elec­tion tools than Twit­ter’s planned po­lit­i­cal ad ban

The Peterborough Examiner - - OPINION - Su­san Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a colum­nist cov­er­ing na­tional pol­i­tics. Reach her via email: sdela­[email protected]­tar.ca or fol­low her on Twit­ter: @su­sandela­court SU­SAN DELACOURT

Po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing, sorry to re­port, is not the worst thing on so­cial me­dia.

While many peo­ple were cel­e­brat­ing Twit­ter’s re­cent an­nounce­ment that it will ban po­lit­i­cal ads, it would be a mis­take to see this as bold blow against po­lit­i­cal tox­i­c­ity on that plat­form.

As any ca­sual user knows, the real cul­prits be­hind the down­ward spi­ral in Twit­ter dis­course are not the peo­ple who pay to push their mes­sages out, but the peo­ple who spew non­sense and dis­in­for­ma­tion for free.

Cana­di­ans were able to wit­ness this on any day of the re­cent fed­eral elec­tion cam­paign, when truly vile and per­sonal at­tacks bounced in ev­ery di­rec­tion in cy­berspace. Racists, sex­ists, con­spir­acy the­o­rists — any­one with a Twit­ter ac­count and an in­ter­net con­nec­tion could spread hate­ful thoughts with­out pay­ing a cent.

The paid po­lit­i­cal ads were saintly by com­par­i­son. You can check for your­self: Twit­ter keeps a run­ning “ad trans­parency re­port,” up­dated ev­ery 24 hours, list­ing all the ads pur­chased, where they were tar­geted and how much they cost.

It shows that in Canada, the fed­eral Lib­er­als are the ones who will miss Twit­ter the most when the ban comes into ef­fect later this month. In the last cou­ple of weeks of the cam­paign alone, the Lib­er­als poured tens of thou­sands of dol­lars into pro­moted tweets — mostly up­beat, rally-the-troops sort of things about “choos­ing for­ward.”

One tweet from Justin Trudeau’s ac­count fea­tured a 30-sec­ond video of Trudeau and some of the topline plat­form prom­ises. Lib­er­als shelled out more than $83,000 for that ad, which reached nearly six mil­lion Twit­ter users, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Con­ser­va­tives were far more fru­gal by com­par­i­son. Around the end of the elec­tion cam­paign, when the Lib­er­als were pour­ing money into pro­moted Tweets, Con­ser­va­tives bought just two ads to­talling un­der $8,000.

In to­tal, the Lib­er­als spent about $270,000 in ad­ver­tis­ing on three of their ac­counts, the Twit­ter re­port says, while Con­ser­va­tives spent just un­der $9,000.

That’s a pit­tance com­pared to the nearly $700 mil­lion Twit­ter col­lected in ad rev­enue in 2019. A farewell to Canadian po­lit­i­cal ads is un­likely to make even a tiny dent in the so­cial me­dia giant’s bot­tom line, nor will it change Twit­ter’s of­ten toxic cul­ture.

On Fri­day, I asked some lead­ing Canadian ex­perts on po­lit­i­cal ads about whether an ad­ver­tis­ing ban is any kind of a cul­ture fix for pol­i­tics.

Eric Blais of Headspace Mar­ket­ing said it “makes no sense to me.” What Blais would like to see is a bet­ter vet­ting process for ads.

“You can’t ad­ver­tise tooth­paste on TV with­out clear­ance by Ad­ver­tis­ing Stan­dards Canada, but you can air a spot at­tack­ing a politi­cian with false­hoods,” he said. He noted that, un­like po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing, gov­ern­ment ads now do have to be cleared to en­sure they aren’t overly par­ti­san.

“Just as broad­cast­ers have their own ad­ver­tis­ing poli­cies and can refuse to air an ad, so could plat­forms like Face­book,” he said. Or the po­lit­i­cal par­ties and their third­party sur­ro­gates could set up a body to reg­u­late so­cial-me­dia ads based on clear guide­lines.

But Den­nis Matthews, who was a mar­ket­ing and ad­ver­tis­ing ad­viser for prime minister Stephen Harper, fears that po­lit­i­cal ads are, by their na­ture, al­most im­pos­si­ble to reg­u­late.

“Po­lit­i­cal ads con­tain points that are al­ways go­ing to be ar­guably true and ar­guably false,” he said. “It’s im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine a fair ar­biter of that.”

Matthews agrees with me that Twit­ter’s worst prob­lems aren’t paid ad­ver­tis­ing, but “what the on­line con­ver­sa­tion has be­come — deeply po­lar­ized, sub­ject to for­eign in­flu­ence and just an all around darker place.

“Fake news is be­ing spread fairly easy, even just in the form of ac­ci­den­tal mis­in­for­ma­tion,” he said. “Ads are a very small part of that.”

And does any­one have to state the ob­vi­ous? In terms of a bro­ken po­lit­i­cal cul­ture, one of the worst of­fend­ers tweets from the White House.

If you want to see what’s wrong with the tone and tem­per of po­lit­i­cal pro­mo­tion these days, all you need to do is check in with what Don­ald Trump is post­ing — for free — to his 66.4 mil­lion fol­low­ers.

Twit­ter CEO Jack Dorsey an­nounced the ban on po­lit­i­cal ads this week in a lengthy thread on his plat­form, which, to be fair, did not tout the de­ci­sion as a move to en­tirely cleanse Twit­ter of po­lit­i­cal poi­son.

Be­sides, Twit­ter al­ready has two func­tions to that end, which I com­mend to ev­ery­one when they see hate­ful tweets: “block” and “mute.” They work far bet­ter than any ad ban in mak­ing that dig­i­tal pub­lic square a more civil place.

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