Twitter’s move to ban political ads comes as the UK enters a six-week general election campaign, one that will be more influenced by social media than ever before. For various reasons – including the British November and December weather -, online will form a key element for the general election campaigns. This is a trend we have seen in UK political campaigning over the past five years, now with almost half of campaign spending used online. Online campaigning has the benefit of targeted messaging, and Twitter’s decision will make this a little more difficult.
It is the right thing to do though: in a YouGov poll from earlier this year, 80% of people said they are in strong favour of regulating political ads on social media sites. Twitter follows ByteDance’s TikTok which announced a ban on all political advertising a few weeks ago – even if a large part of the platform’s audience is too young to vote.
And Facebook? Ruling out a ban is based on the argument that it would stifle freedom of speech when applied to candidates or advocacy groups with an otherwise limited reach who use political ads sensibly and responsibly. But as users we should voice our concerns. A clear message that the platform acknowledges and acts on its responsibility will help to re-establish much needed trust. Also, as only a tiny percentage of Facebook’s revenue comes from political ads, there is no commercial argument to justify a ban.
While the company will hopefully re-think its approach, immediate responses from UK politicians show how broad the debate is:
If Zuckerberg has rejected a similar move, we should look to legislate in the UK, just as we disallow political TV advertising here. https://t.co/udBpqmpG7T— Ian Lucas MP (@IanCLucas) October 31, 2019
Twitter is banning all paid for political ads. Something had to be done to start to combat the increasingly sophisticated fake news that is damaging our democracy. I am supportive of the move and other platforms should follow. Roll back, regulate, restore trust. https://t.co/JVVUlPFN2i— Layla Moran 🔶 🏳️🌈 (@LaylaMoran) October 31, 2019
This is the key point regarding the Twitter announcement on political advertising. The problem on that platform has been big networks of fake bot accounts rather than legitimate advertisers. This move could make life easier for the peddlers of fake news. https://t.co/fVwZOMWHSH— Damian Collins (@DamianCollins) October 30, 2019
This highlights three key points: Firstly, regulation that works well and applies to TV and print media ads needs to be extended to digital platforms. Secondly, if digital platforms are not able or willing to make this happen, the regulator needs to step in. Thirdly, political ads should not be confused with bots or fake news. They all have an impact on political decision making, but they need to be looked at and addressed differently. Twitter undoubtedly needs to become better at tackling bots and fake news. For now, it has made an important step in the right direction.
So, can we expect a more honest and fair election campaign in the UK in the next weeks? Probably not. The campaigns will be fought strategically and aggressively. But Twitter’s move means that there will be a little bit less intransparency into how political parties try to influence our voting decisions. To fully regain our trust into a fair political system other platforms need to follow – and we can encourage them to do so. And if they don’t, we need clear and industry-wide rules.