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